Harvey Weinstein and the Power of Celebrity Exceptionalism

Stars, they’re just like us—until they’re not.

Harvey Weinstein, before the revelations of sexual misconduct came to light
Harvey Weinstein on the red carpet of the Oscars during the 2016 ceremony (Al Powers / Invision / AP)

“When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.”

That was Donald Trump, in 2005, explaining the world and its workings to Access Hollywood’s Billy Bush. Both men were celebrities, but one was a bigger celebrity than the other; both were powerful, but one was more powerful than the other; both were connected to the American presidency, but one—through having toyed with seeking the office himself—was more connected than the other. And yet the older man couldn’t help but boast to the younger about the happy affordances of fame: When you’re a star, you can do whatever you want. When you’re a star, you can have your way in so many ways. I moved on her. I moved on her very heavily. I moved on her like a bitch. I just start kissing them—it’s like a magnet. I don’t even wait. Grab ‘em by the pussy. They let you do it. You can do anything.

In 2016, after a recording of the men’s exchange was made public, Billy Bush, the minor star, was fired from NBC. Donald Trump, the major one, was elected president of the United States.

Almost a year to the day after the publication of what would become known, with polite euphemism, as the “Access Hollywood tape,” The New York Times published a related kind of revelation: Harvey Weinstein had been accused by multiple women of sexual misconduct—an alleged pattern of psychological manipulation and strategic harassment that spanned decades—and, in many cases, paid them for their silence. The paper’s report was followed up with an investigation in The New Yorker that included allegations from three different women that Weinstein had raped them. The stories—and the many, many more from women who have come forward in recent days—have been met with a mixture of shock and its opposite among Weinstein’s fellow celebrities. “I didn’t know about these things, but they don’t surprise me at all,” Emma Thompson told the BBC on Thursday. She was speaking, it seems, for many in her field.

As the Weinstein news has spread, for the past week, across American culture and consciousness, it has been a story, in large part, about the particular actions of a particular man, enabled by a particular group of people. As the news settles in, though, it will be a story about the actions of the rest of us—about the way we approach justice, collectively, when the person who has violated it is powerful and wealthy and famous. Will Weinstein face criminal charges for his alleged abuses? Will he, as has been done before, remain in Europe and evade accountability in America? Will he be ruined? Or will he, as Weinstein himself has apparently suggested, be back winning Oscars within the year?

When you’re a star, you can do anything, Donald Trump said, and his insight was terrible and correct. Is it still?

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In 1977, Roman Polanski was arrested in Los Angeles and charged with several offenses, each emerging from a sexual encounter he had had with Samantha Gailey, then 13 years old: The 43-year-old Polanski had, she said, given her champagne and a quaalude, and then had raped and sodomized her. Polanski struck a deal in response to the charges, pleading guilty to a blanket count of unlawful sex with a minor. But when he learned that the judge in the case had had a change of heart and was planning to reject the bargain, he fled to Paris, and has lived in Europe ever since—continuing to make movies, to win awards, and to be a member of Hollywood’s elite. In 1981, Polanski was nominated for an Oscar for Best Director, for Tess. In 2003, he won the award, for The Pianist. In his autobiography, Roman, published in 1984, the director teasingly refers to girls being “sexy, pert, and thoroughly human” and to appreciating Gstaad, Switzerland, on the grounds that it is home to “hundreds of fresh-faced, nubile young girls of all nationalities.”

Through the years, one of Polanski’s most vocal defenders, to the extent that Polanski has needed defenders at all, has been Harvey Weinstein. In 2009, the producer helped to circulate a petition among the Hollywood powerful demanding that Polanski be freed after he was arrested in Switzerland. (Polanski had come to Zurich to accept a lifetime achievement award at the city’s film festival.) As one element of the aggressive publicity campaign Weinstein mounted on Polanski’s behalf—Weinstein has been very skilled at waging publicity campaigns—the producer wrote an opinion piece for the U.K.’s Independent newspaper. The column mentioned not just Weinstein himself, but also Thierry Frémaux, the director of the Cannes Film Festival, Quentin Tarantino, Warren Beatty, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Robert Evans, and the then-French president Nicolas Sarkozy—famous name after famous name, all dropped in service to the thesis that Polanski, whatever had “happened in 1977,” is “a man who cares deeply about his art and its place in this world.”

The column anticipated, in its genuflections to fame, the remarkable apology Weinstein would issue to the Times on his own behalf, eight years later. In it, Weinstein emphasized that Polanski was “a great artist” and “a humanist.” He reminded readers that Polanski had gone “through the Holocaust and the murder of his wife, Sharon Tate, by the Manson family,” and that he had emerged from tragedy to win the French Legion of Honour. Weinstein quoted Martin Scorsese as saying, “Polanski’s films have influenced me as an artist all these years and his terrible political situation has been something we have all had to suffer through.” In 1977, Weinstein suggested, one thing “happened” to one (unnamed) person; for decades, though, a great artist named Roman Polanski had been happening to the whole world. The one situation simply outweighed the other.

What Weinstein was doing, essentially, was constructing a more nuanced version of Donald Trump’s pronouncement to Billy Bush: He was making a case for Hollywood exceptionalism. He was summoning the idea that celebrity, in America, functions as a secular religion, with good and evil, with gods and monsters, with humans that, through the alchemy of fame, turn into stars. Celebrities are with us, but more to the point they are above us. They transcend our earthbound assumptions. They are soaring; we are small. How can the things that sparkle in the firmament be held to account for humans’ fleshy flaws?

It is a logic that is infused not just in the transactions of Hollywood, but also in the world of American sports. And the world of American tech. And the world of American politics. And the world of American science. And the world of American academia. The famous are famous, the idea goes—the powerful are powerful—the stars shine above us—because they are, somehow, touched: with talent, with genius, with the capacity to make the things that, in turn, make the world richer and better. “Hollywood has the best moral compass, because it has compassion,” Harvey Weinstein told the Los Angeles Times in 2009, defending a man who had pled guilty to raping a 13-year-old. Debra Winger agreed: “The whole art world suffers” when someone like Polanski is arrested, she said. When Jeffrey Toobin wrote of Polanski’s legal troubles for The New Yorker, in December of 2009, his piece was headlined “The Celebrity Defense.” When the “free Polanski” petition circulated that same year, more than 100 of Hollywood’s most prominent people—including David Lynch, Michael Mann, Mike Nichols, and Woody Allen—signed it.

American evangelicalism has its prosperity theology; but American celebrity, too, has knelt before an altar of exceptionalism. Star by star, sin by sin, we have allowed the famous and the rich and the artistic to abide by a different set of rules, a different mode of morality. The gospel of celebrity was invoked when Mel Gibson, after hitting his girlfriend and calling her a “pig in heat,” returned to filmmaking—and was rewarded with an Oscar nomination. The gospel was invoked when it was announced that the guy who insisted that “Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world” would be playing a wacky role in Daddy’s Home 2. It was invoked when Bill O’Reilly left the Fox News Channel with a parachute amounting to the tens of millions, and when Roger Ailes left with one amounting to $60 million, and when actors clamor to be featured in the next Woody Allen film, and when the world delights at Bill Clinton playing with balloons, and when Bill Cosby walks free. It is there when Donald Trump brags about being able to do anything, and then proves it by winning the White House.

We Americans are good at many things, but one of our most finely honed skills is our ability to be surgically selective in our vision and our outrage. Double standards drip among the stars in our synthetic firmament. The American flag is sacred, unless it isn’t. Drug addiction is a menace deserving of consternation, unless it’s a crisis deserving of compassion. Celebrities are just like us, unless they’re not. They have been elevated by the brute physics of fame. They have done whatever they have wanted. We have helped them.

The aftermath of the Weinstein revelations, however, could well be cause for hope. As my colleague Alex Wagner argued, the mogul’s downfall might mark the beginning of the end of the old boys’ club among the institutions that, for so long, helped him to keep his secrets. Women talk—amongst each other, and out loud. Social media have given a voice to those who were previously silent. And celebrity itself is becoming more intimate, more human, more accountable.

In the world as it spins in 2017, Bill Cosby may not be in jail, but he lives in disgrace. Bill O’Reilly has moved to an online version of his Fox show that is a shadow of its former self. Fox has parted ways with Eric Bolling after accusations against the host came to light. Travis Kalanick has been ousted as Uber’s CEO for creating a corporate environment that was hostile to women. Roy Price, the president of Amazon Studios, has been suspended following allegations of sexual harassment. Earlier this month, it was reported that Renate Langer had informed the Swiss police that Roman Polanski had raped her in February of 1972, when she was 15—making her the fourth woman to publicly accuse the director of assaulting her as a teenager, and reopening the public conversation about Polanski’s extremely questionable place in Hollywood’s glistening hierarchy. Story by story, revelation by revelation, the stars are falling around us.

And this week, the stars that remain, in Hollywood and beyond, have been flooding the world with their public condemnations of Harvey Weinstein. That is itself suggestive of changing norms, of new assumptions, of a shift in what Americans will tolerate from their celebrities—and what they will no longer. It is at this point extraordinarily difficult to imagine a scenario in which Weinstein has not permanently plummeted from celebrity’s stratosphere. It is hard to imagine that the world, now that his “open secret” is secret no more, hasn’t been in some small way transformed. There are surely more stories to be told, and there is surely more work to be done. But fame, it seems, does not inoculate as it once did. Celebrity is no longer its own justification. When you’re a star, they let you do it. Until they don’t.