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Sexism and male voyeurism have been intertwined throughout movie history

Harvey Weinstein and the male cinematic gaze.

Harvey Weinstein with the actress Elizabeth Olsen, and his wife Georgina Chapman, August 2017 in New York.
Harvey Weinstein with actress Elizabeth Olsen and his wife Georgina Chapman in August 2017 in New York.
Paul Bruinooge/Getty Images

For more than a week now, we have been spectators to the unwinding truth about Harvey Weinstein, as if we were watching the terrifying liquid spread of fire in Northern California, or the ravages of a hurricane that keeps circling in its fury. As with a tropical storm, the enormity of the event can be conjured with a single name, “Harvey.”

And we keep watching in an infernal mixture of emotions: The damage is dreadful and tragic, but — be honest with ourselves — doesn’t a part of us stay watching and waiting on more disaster? So long as the damage is “elsewhere”; so long as our vantage stays safe — aren’t we endless feeders at the spectacle? What else has “breaking news” taught us except our state of watching and wondering and even wanting more? So the ugliness exposed in Harvey Weinstein is one in which so many men have participated vicariously, under the sheltering guise of our anonymity. Cinema has always been rooted in seeing forbidden things.

First things first: Admit it, “everyone” knew — I mean anyone who lived close to the heart or on the outer reaches of the movie experience — and that includes many of us, the spectators, the faceless egos in the dark, the fantasists who went to the movies to have their dreams realized. I have one correction to that: Meryl Streep had no idea “it” was going on (and she won an Oscar on a Weinstein picture, The Iron Lady). I do not doubt her, and I do not impugn her eminence. But Ms. Streep has always been above us all: That’s why we cherish her while feeling just a touch distant from her.

Second, I think Weinstein’s failings and his sins were more extensive than those being mentioned so far. Yes, he propositioned, intimidated, groped, and did worse to all manner of women who longed to be in pictures. In a New Yorker report, three women accused him of rape. Some of the women who have spoken of Weinstein’s behavior took his attitude for granted because they had encountered it elsewhere in Hollywood. Others were intimidated and bought into a dreadful legal silence. And that process was not simply “Harvey.” It required associates, enablers and lawyers. It was a system of practice.

It went beyond that. Harvey was a physical bully; he attacked and beat on other men. He was commercially abusive to entire projects. He took it as in his power to re-edit other people’s films — sometimes with a legal right, sometimes not. His intrusions were sometimes effective; in other cases they were brutal and stupid. He cheated on deals. Sometimes he simply shelved or silenced worthwhile films.

In all of these situations, he had an ugly repertoire of defensive responses: He kept associates who enabled him; he paid victims off and bought their humiliating silence in the process; he warned that people would not work or succeed without his consent. And he frightened the world around him, by saying and proving, yes, he really was a monster. He had no shame.

I met him a couple of times and I believe he had resolved to be proud of his monstrousness. He was a gambler who thought he would get away with risk. He did this for close to 30 years while carrying so many films and filmmakers to what is often regarded as glory. He was terrible, but he was often good at what he did. And so he had a confidence as ugly as his crimes. That knowing smile was never far from his blunt face.

And we knew it — even we could have nudged Streep and given her the word.

The reason why we knew it is profound and important and it has done so much to lead our culture to its present crisis. It has to do with the essential technology of the movies.

A technology designed for the male gaze

Think of the technology this way: The movies were a medium that said, “Here, let me show you the impossible.” It knew that the public in its poverty, its ignominy, its plainness and its unknown status, was captivated by the screen’s celebration of faces, beauty, narrative splendor, and the strange lack of shyness that pretended it did not know we were watching.

So, the system whispered: Look at this lovely woman, look at her face, her legs, her breasts — look at them and dream your ticket has purchased them. And they don’t know you’re there in the dark, peeping at them. So they will sigh, begin to weep, stay there in the light, and even let a silk shift fall from their body.

Tippi Hedren in The Birds. She later wrote that director Alfred Hitchcock sexually assaulted her.
Tippi Hedren in The Birds. She later wrote that director Alfred Hitchcock sexually assaulted her.
Universal Studios/Getty Images

And we watched. We paid the nickel — or the $15. And we knew. We knew the whole thing was an illicit trick and a guilty pleasure we might deny ourselves. It posited a kind of silent, frictionless possession and it posed a savage contrast between Beauty and our drab Beastliness that has torn our culture apart. We knew it was men acting on the innate superiority of gazing at women who, onscreen, carried themselves like elegant prisoners or slaves.

Slavery has been such a profound force in American culture that it has affected many things beyond the historical practice of whites owning blacks. It has a great deal to do with the claim by men that they do own and control women, because of a supposed superiority in nature — and because so many men fear and loathe the female. So photograph her, grope her, rape her. Call it “locker room” stuff.

Yes, this is truly hideous, and that’s one reason why it was dark at the movies and why theater managers learned to keep the lights off for a while after a very moving film had ended — because we needed time to reassemble ourselves and because we wanted to avoid the shame of being seen watching such rites.

Please note: The “we” here is male, no matter that all kinds of survey report that women went to the movies and often made the choice of what pictures couples saw. Still, the business and the art of the movies have been a function of the male hope for domination and control.

From D.W. Griffith to Hitchcock to Weinstein

The history of the medium can be described as a series of events in which men fell in love with women and made art and money out of that love by putting it on the screen. The adoration did not always involve touching or rape. I’m not sure that D.W. Griffith “had” Lillian Gish, but I believe the films they made together (like Broken Blossoms and Way Down East) hover over that prospect. In just that way, Alfred Hitchcock gazed on Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly, Kim Novak, and so many others, and made art out of his horrified suppression of his own desire because he felt it was indecent.

At last (as the rules of censorship changed, and he aged), he cast Tippi Hedren in The Birds and Marnie and came out of his furtive, watchful closet. He forced himself on her, and when she refused he said he would finish her career. But in truth, his shame over the episode seems to have finished his own career, too, artistically.

I think Josef von Sternberg “had” Marlene Dietrich on The Blue Angel and Morocco and then saw the bitter, lovely irony of the way she smiled at him on screen as if to say, “But Joe, you can’t really have me, because — you see — I’m just a ghost on the screen — I’m not real, I’m photographed.” That is probably the most comical and mature handling of voyeurism the movies ever managed.

David Selznick, producer of Gone with the Wind, touched a lot of actresses and then became infatuated with Jennifer Jones, who in mysterious and semi-spiritual ways was untouchable. His prior marriage ended, along with hers. He devoted himself to making her a star and his love goddess, and in doing so he became imprisoned in trying to rescue her from vulnerability. It was a tragedy, but it was nearly comic, too. It reduced Selznick to ruin, while Jones hardly noticed.

Marlene Dietrich, in The Blue Angel.
Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel.
ullstein bild/Getty Images

Francois Truffaut fell in love with Jeanne Moreau and Catherine Deneuve and maybe because all the parties were so fickle or so in love with change, the transaction gave us a few great films, including Jules and Jim and Mississippi Mermaid, without special damage being done. Very few actresses enjoy the looming male gaze. But a lot learn to live with it because they realize their heaven depends on the degrees of lust behind the camera and in that larger movie dark. And the smart fatalists know the movies have a chance of outliving the perishable, knockout bodies that last so short a time.

And deep down, men have known this, and hoped the deal was more magic than manipulation. Howard Hawks, a heartfelt womanizer who knew that having many women averted the awkwardness and the boredom of being with just one of them, saw Betty Jean Perske, a prematurely wise kid. He put her under a personal service contract; he schooled her voice, her clothes, her rhythms, and her hair. He called her Lauren Bacall and he meant to have her — we can’t be certain he didn’t get that far. But then an irony befell that sweet romance, To Have and Have Not, when Bacall instead fell in love with a rattled, rasping alcoholic who had a bad temper and a bold toupee, plus a fear of growing old. We call him Bogey.

And we have known this all along, so that we take not just the pleasure of superiority and revenge in seeing the downfall of Harvey Weinstein, but the rueful knowledge that he is like us. For a century, the movies presented the male-female relationship as a “romance” (happy endings included) in which men were indulged by women who let themselves be seen. But “Harvey” has given us the chance to see how prejudicial the alleged romance was. Can we shrug off the damage? Can we let women be free — which would include being directors of photography, directors of films, and of movie studios. Or will “Hollywood” stand in history as a last, disastrous emblem of lonely male authority?

David Thomson is the author of Warner Bros: The Making of an American Movie Studio, and The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, among other books.

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