In secret chat rooms of Hollywood inclusion activists and women’s groups, chat rooms that have existed long before the #MeToo and #TimesUp hashtags, we have been discussing the long tradition of Hollywood smear campaigns against those who speak truth to power, or, as the public has now found out, those who refuse sexual advances of the powerful.
As filmmakers came forward and admitted they dropped actresses from consideration for their movies because Harvey Weinstein smeared them, many of us were left wondering why it was so easy for him to do that.
In a conversation with New Zealand website Stuff, director Peter Jackson said, “I recall Miramax telling us they [Ashley Judd and Mira Sorvino] were a nightmare to work with and we should avoid them at all costs. This was probably in 1998. At the time, we had no reason to question what these guys were telling us – but in hindsight, I realize that this was very likely the Miramax smear campaign in full swing. I now suspect we were fed false information about both of these talented women – and as a direct result their names were removed from our casting list.”
I don’t want to beat up on Jackson after he admitted this, I’d rather address everybody in a hiring position in Hollywood who has ever dropped someone from consideration because of a rumor.
Why is that all it takes? When Weinstein said those things about women we now know rejected him, why didn’t anybody at least ask “a nightmare, how”?
When I brought this issue up in my inclusion group, where members are all people of color working in various departments in the entertainment industry, all of us, men and women, had endless stories of jobs lost due to someone smearing us. This isn’t what’s bothering us, we all knew before we started taking a stance on inclusion issues that speaking truth to power results in power punching back.
What isn’t as easy to swallow is how willingly good people believe these type of statements. Folks are out there accepting awards for being inclusion champions, but the minute an executive they knew from “way-back-when-in-the-mailroom” says something as vague as “life’s to short to deal with him” they delete a name off their list without hesitation.
Is this a professional way to conduct business? Let alone a legal one?
Sometimes bad references aren’t vague and instead are much more thought out and deliberate. An actor in our group who often has to object to casual racism on set is suddenly plagued by “he couldn’t pull off this scene” or “he never knows his lines” type of rumors. Those are very specific claims that, if true, can end an actor’s career, which is why anybody with professional integrity has a responsibility to investigate such claims further.
All of us in this group are plagued with similar damaging references.
An Assistant Director (AD) who suddenly has a habit of forgetting to call actors in at the correct time, a cinematographer who takes too much time lighting, a writer who (after she helped expose one of Hollywood’s serial sexual harassers) suddenly doesn’t deliver her scripts on time…these claims are all very specific codes for “do not hire”.
But these are also claims that can very easily be proven true or false.
There are call sheets, production reports, dailies you can watch, etc. But if the people with hiring power refuse to properly investigate such claims we are doomed, because nobody tells us the identity of the person who’s making these claims, nor are we told on what production we supposedly failed in such a spectacular manner.
Those in saner industries will now question how this could possibly be legal. Hollywood is still the Wild West where people in power make their own rules. Beyond Twitter, nobody seems to know that #TimesUp, bad behavior, and unprofessional conduct are still on the clock as ever before.
The last time it happened to me, I lost a job because some anonymous person said something bad about me to a showrunner who was checking my references. When that took place, I did get legal advice. Because I was part of the group of women directors who worked with the ACLU and the EEOC to investigate the discrimination of women directors in Hollywood, I contacted our point person at each organization and had a long talk with both women.
I got a tremendous amount of information and was told I definitely had a case, but there wasn’t really a solution. At least not one I could live with. The case I had was against the company who wanted to hire me but then decided against it after their showrunner heard something bad about me. The problem is, I like this company a lot. I’ve known them for a long time, they’re decent people and I get that they didn’t want to overrule one of their showrunners (which, frankly, would have resulted in a disaster, because there’s nothing worse than working for a person who, unbeknownst to you, didn’t want you there).
If the only recourse I have in a situation like this is to go after a company who are fans of mine and who approached me to direct their show in the first place, the system is broken.
Essentially this all comes down to decent people doing the right thing. There’s been such an outcry for due diligence since #MeToo, but the people crying out for it never grant members of marginalized groups that same privilege.
So I am appealing to those people in the industry who truly believe that #TimesUp, who truly want a more inclusive Hollywood and who understand that real inclusion can only be achieved by providing a safe working environment for women, members of marginalized groups and people from different cultural backgrounds:
1. If you are calling for a reference about a woman and the person on the other line replies with:
a) she’s crazy
b) she’s a nightmare to work with
c) she’s difficult
Then please hang up immediately and hire this woman.
2. If you’re calling for a reference about anybody you want to hire and you receive the type of feedback that is very obvious “don’t hire” code (i.e. this actor can’t act, this director can’t direct, this DP lights forever, etc.), don’t just take this feedback at face value.
Even if it comes from your old mailroom buddy, even if it is said by a woman about another woman or by a person-of-color about another person-of-color (if you are confused by this, please read up on what “systemic” means in relation to “systemic discrimination”)
3. If you’re calling for a reference about someone and you get lukewarm feedback, dig deeper.
You owe it to yourself and the production you work for to find out if their negative experience may be a positive in your eyes. Great leaders/creators/producers like to hire people who are smarter and better than they are, so that their show/movie thrives, whereas bad leaders are intimidated by talent. If you ask, “How was Aliya as an AD?” and the reply is “too smart for her own good, always coming up with new ways to schedule things,” then it’s possible that Aliya didn’t respect the hierarchy on a movie set…but it is also possible that Aliya had better ideas than the much higher paid producers around her, who then resented her for it.
4. Understand why you’re not always getting the truth
In the case of Weinstein, we now know the reason dozens of filmmakers were told that certain actresses are a nightmare to work with was that he could hardly say out loud: “They wouldn’t let me fuck them.”
Want to know some other things people don’t say out loud in Hollywood?
a) He kept complaining about homophobic comments on set
b) She butted heads with our misogynistic cinematographer
c) She objected to a stuntwoman in blackface
d) She overheard inappropriate sexual comments about a fellow actress and confronted the director who made them
Nobody in Hollywood is ever going to admit out loud that this is what really bothered them about someone they worked with. Heard of ‘White Fragility’?
Multiply that by 100 and you get Hollywood Fragility.
Suggesting to a white Hollywood liberal, especially one with a little power, that they may have a social equality blindspot, is like poking a shark with a finger that’s bleeding from an open wound. Try and picture the following dialogue:
“I won 3 Emmys for a show that was all about racial justice, how dare you call me a racist?”
“I would never call you a racist, I’m just humbly suggesting you should reconsider the term exotic Latina in your script.”
To doubt this is happening, you have to either believe that Hollywood has magically eliminated all of its toxic habits overnight, or that they welcome anybody who objects to those habits, or that there aren’t any people who dare to object.
We aren’t many. But we do exist and our hope has always been that eventually, our ability to raise the flag about issues we know you’ll get dragged for in the press or on social media will make us an asset rather than persona non grata. To be clear, none of us walk into a production office or onto a set with a social equality report chart. We don’t want to point out your BS. At all. We just want to direct/act/shoot etc. Do you have any idea how uncomfortable it is when you’re going about your job and suddenly somebody does or says something racist or sexist and you’re the only one who understands how inappropriate it was (or you’re the only one unable to pretend you didn’t hear it)?
Also, understand that we ignore a good 90% of inappropriate things we hear or see on any job because we know how unpopular it is to make an issue out of it. By the time we raise the flag on something, trust that we have already endured hundreds of micro-aggressions in silence.
For example, I have never complained when someone calls me “love” “darling” “sweetie” etc. For one, because it honestly never bothered me personally and two, I realized that people google me before I arrive on a job and they think it’s funny to rile up the feminist director (the frustration on their faces when I refuse to react is priceless). But while I refuse to react to inappropriate terms of endearment, I will definitely object to a stuntwoman in blackface or a cinematographer who rolls his eyes every time I suggest a shot.
We all have different parameters of what we can or can’t ignore, but we all completely agree that we would most prefer if all of this BS would cease to exist.
5. Understand how smear campaigns work
This frustrates me to no end. And it exists not only in my industry but on the global stage. It shouldn’t be so easy to make people believe lies and yet…look where we are. The funny thing is that many of my industry peers express great frustration at how the current administration manages to gaslight an entire nation, but they have no problem participating in a gaslight campaign against one of their own.
Even before the appalling list of Harvey Weinstein’s crimes against women was exposed, the man never had a reputation as a good or trusted guy. Men who worked with him referred to him as a bully and Harvey Scissorhands (for cutting up their movies). So how was it possible that filmmakers “didn’t have a reason to doubt him” when he smeared women they themselves had never met?
Power. That’s how.
Remember that Hollywood fragility I told you about? If someone tells you something bad about a person you’re considering for a job and you start digging deeper and demanding more information…the person who gave you the information will immediately be defensive and assume you’re calling them a liar.
So most people don’t even question a vague statement if it was made by someone they want to keep on their good side.
Even if you don’t ask the original source of the bad reference for more information and instead ask other people, who end up telling you the opposite…you’re still wondering if you can hire somebody this particular person has deemed unhirable because what would be the consequences if they found out?
Smear campaigns are no joke and the real agony is that they never stay confined to one group or company. If that were the case then the actresses who were smeared by Weinstein would have continued to have a great career at all the other studios in town, except Weinstein’s. But this is a small town and everybody hops from one studio/network to another constantly. So those filmmakers who didn’t have a reason to doubt Weinstein may actually find the name of one of those actresses on a list that another studio is presenting to them. Now it’s the filmmaker who tells the studio: “Oh no, she’s a nightmare to work with.” And this filmmaker is actually a nice guy, the studio has no reason not to believe him…and so it goes on and on and on….
Another thing you should know about smear campaigns is that those who originate them are exceptionally good at it and probably have years of practice. They know how to seize on some element of the target’s behavior (good or bad) which other people will easily recognize.
For example, if someone were to say about me, “oh God she fights about everything,” everybody who knows that I was a competitive fighter before I became a director will pause for a second. Because “Lexi and fighting”sound familiar to them and not much like a stretch. It takes several extra steps to walk this through logically and consider that just because someone was a competitive fighter (in a ring, wearing safety gear no less) doesn’t mean they are moronic enough to sabotage their career to win a pyrrhic victory.
On top of all that, people who become victims of smear campaigns don’t really help themselves. Understandably they often charge around wild-eyed and angry, screaming to the skies that whatever is being said about them is not true. They rightly fear losing their livelihood, they are frustrated by the sheer inability to defend themselves and the lack of official recourse.
Often this leads to victims behaving as irrational as the smear campaign tried to make them look in the first place.
We need transparency. We need blockchain, but for references. Want to make a charge about someone’s job performance? Go ahead, make it. But it has to be officially registered under your name on a platform that everybody else in this industry can access. These whisper campaigns where you can ruin someone’s career anonymously need to stop.
Transparency leads to truth.