NON-FICTION: HOW WEINSTEIN SURVIVED

Published April 26, 2020
Film producer Harvey Weinstein arrives at New York Criminal Court for his sexual assault trial on Jan 27, 2020 | Reuters
Film producer Harvey Weinstein arrives at New York Criminal Court for his sexual assault trial on Jan 27, 2020 | Reuters

Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein was convicted of rape and sexual assault on Feb 25, 2020. In March, he was sentenced to 23 years in prison. This landmark verdict is a significant moment of the #MeToo movement and its global reckoning of sexual misconduct by powerful men. In the past few years, hundreds of women — and men — have come forward with allegations ranging from harassment to rape at the hands of Weinstein and others. Reading about these startling revelations, I found myself wondering again and again: how could these men get away with it for so long?

Ronan Farrow’s extraordinary book answers this question. The result of two years of reporting that exposed Weinstein as a sexual predator and rapist, Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators is not only a book about the Hollywood mogul’s crimes. It is a story about a wider system of protectors and enablers that allows rich, powerful men to use their power and influence to hurt freely, escape accountability and still be celebrated. Meanwhile, it is the women speaking out who face damaging consequences.

Weinstein — the Oscar-winning producer of films such as Pulp Fiction and Shakespeare in Love — was “thanked more than almost anyone else in [film] history” at award ceremonies by the biggest names in Hollywood. All the while, in what turned out to be an established pattern, he was luring young women to his hotel suites, where he would subject them to varying degrees of sexual harassment and assault.

According to Rose McGowan, the actress who accused Weinstein of rape and was one of Farrow’s first sources, Weinstein was helped by assistants, managers and industry power brokers who were complicit: some deliberately lured victims or helped silence them, others looked the other way. “They wouldn’t look at me,” McGowan said of the time she walked out of the meeting with Weinstein where the assault occurred. “They looked down, these men. They wouldn’t look me in the eyes.” After the incident, she believes she was “blacklisted” and barely worked in films again.

In March 2015, Filipina-Italian model Ambra Battilana Gutierrez emerged from a meeting with Weinstein and went straight to the police, claiming he had groped her. Working with the New York Police Department, she extracted a confession from Weinstein while wearing a wire. Gutierrez had risked her safety and her career but, despite the evidence, Weinstein was never charged. As it turned out, Weinstein’s legal team “was stacked with political influence”, having donated thousands of dollars to Manhattan district attorney Cyrus Vance Jr’s campaign. It was Gutierrez who was viciously attacked by tabloids, whose career was finished and whose life was “destroyed.”

Ronan Farrow vividly and meticulously details how the film producer and convicted serial rapist evaded accountability for his actions for so long

Weinstein waged war on anyone who threatened to expose him, including journalists. As Farrow followed leads, trying to convince victims to talk on record, Weinstein’s spies alerted him. He made calls to National Broadcasting Company (NBC) executives, asking them to quash the story. “Hey,” he said in a call to NBC News chairman Andy Lack, “your boy Ronan is doing a story on me. About the [’90s] and stuff.” Weinstein added, “It was the [’90s], Andy,” and then, with a note of menace: “We all did that.”

Farrow recounts his bafflement when his NBC bosses discouraged him from reporting on Weinstein. As the months passed, dismissiveness turned to an outright ban. Farrow alleges that NBC executives had a murky history with sexual misconduct, that Weinstein had collected dirt on them and said he could reveal it.

This question of how Weinstein collected dirt on his opponents forms another thread of the book. At the centre of Weinstein’s circle of co-conspirators were two men: Dylan Howard, editor-in-chief of the tabloid newspaper National Enquirer and David Pecker, CEO of the newspaper’s parent company, American Media Inc. (AMI). When McGowan’s claim surfaced, Howard sent an email to Weinstein, forwarding a recording they had obtained of a woman who had been persuaded to make damaging statements about McGowan. “I have something AMAZING,” Howard wrote. The woman had “laid into Rose pretty hard.”

The writer and actor Lena Dunham disclosed how, during the 2016 campaign, she’d told Clinton’s staff that the campaign’s reliance on Weinstein as a fund-raiser and event organiser was a liability. “I just want to let you know that Harvey’s a rapist and this is going to come out at some point,” she recalled telling a communications staffer, one of several she said she warned.— Excerpt from the book

“This is the killer,” Weinstein replied. “Especially if my fingerprints r [sic] not on this.”

Catch and Kill, the title of the book, is a reference to the phrase AMI employees used to describe a practice of purchasing a story in order to bury it. AMI also routinely engaged in blackmail. They had files on everybody — including Matt Lauer, host of the NBC programme Today — and Weinstein knew about them. (NBC fired Lauer in November 2017 for “inappropriate sexual behaviour” but, in the book, former NBC employee Brooke Nevils accuses him of rape.)

The obstacles that Farrow had to overcome to report this story are astonishing and he recounts them with a flair for drama and a spy novelist’s understanding of suspense. Like good novels, he describes crucial moments through dialogue, and small gestures become significant only after the truth is revealed. When Farrow tells Lauer he’s doing a story on sexual harassment in Hollywood, he describes the anchor’s reaction: “his eyes snapped back to me” from where he had been inattentively scrolling through emails on his computer monitor.

When he plays the incriminating Guiterrez recording for Noah Oppenheim, president of NBC News, Farrow writes: “Oppenheim produced a sound somewhere between a weary sigh and an apathetic ‘eh’ and made a shrugging gesture.”

As many reviewers have noted, the book reads like a thriller, but as fiction it would not seem believable. Moles with fake names posing as friends, a former writer for The Guardian turned spy, sleek pens that record audio, safe houses. Weinstein had even employed an Israeli intelligence firm called Black Cube to gather information on the women who might accuse him publicly; the firm also conducted surveillance on journalists, including Farrow.

Farrow’s family history made reporting this story personal in a more difficult way. He writes candidly about his relationship with his sister Dylan Farrow, who accused their father Woody Allen of molesting her when she was a child. He writes: “Her allegation, and the questions that swirled between us as to whether I’d done enough, soon enough, to acknowledge it, had introduced a space between us that hadn’t been there in the childhood photos.”

Before his interview with McGowan, Farrow called Dylan and asked for advice. “Well, this is the worst part,” she said. “The considering. The waiting for the story. But once you put your voice out there, it gets a lot easier ... It’s like ripping off a Band-Aid.” And then she said, “if you get this, don’t let it go.” And he didn’t.

After being forced out by NBC, Farrow took his reporting to The New Yorker, which published his article in October 2017. (A similar article written by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey had been published in The New York Times two weeks earlier.) In those two stories and in the months that followed, dozens of women — including actresses Ashley Judd, Gwyneth Paltrow, Salma Hayek, Lupita Nyong’o, McGowan and Asia Argento — accused Weinstein of sexual harassment. The latter two accused him of rape.

Farrow’s recounting is vivid, meticulous and thorough. At the centre of the story are the 13 women (and many more since) who chose to come forward in bringing down a powerful sexual predator who had escaped accountability for far too long, and Farrow does not let us forget that.

The reviewer is the founder of The Writing Room and talks about books on Instagram @thewritingroom.co

Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators
By Ronan Farrow
Little, Brown and Co, US
ISBN: 978-0316486637
464pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 26th, 2020

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