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Hollywood’s Actress Abuse Problem Goes Beyond the Casting Couch

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When reports of Harvey Weinstein’s alleged sexual predation broke in early October, my first thought was, “Noooooooo! His company produces ‘Project Runway’! He’s had access not only to young actresses since the 1980s but also to underage models since 2004!”

On the heels of my second thought—a moment of schadenfreude toward the onetime rock promoter notorious for bullying directors and spending so much on Oscar campaigns that it was as if he thought the damned statuettes were for sale—came a third.

And that was: Though Harvey Weinstein may be a noxious carbuncle on the backside of Hollywood, lancing him will not make the industry any safer for women, even if others likewise are outed. The casting couch is only one of the many land mines an actress must defuse in an industry where men are the principal deciders of who gets represented and how, as well as the principal hirers.

From an actress’s first audition to her final movie, there are mines and mind games. Is she pretty enough? Is she skinny enough? Can she do something about that aquiline nose? How about some implants to make her look more, well, you know?

These are the first assaults on her self-esteem. If she acquiesces to any or all of these dubious improvements, there’s still no guarantee of getting the part, which is when the eating disorders and extreme surgeries and, yes, the casting couch come in.

Not every movie actress goes through this, you say? But so many of them do. From Judy Garland to Jane Fonda to Julia Roberts, maintaining a certain weight, as just one example, has been a career challenge.

After Garland bobbed her nose, producers at MGM prescribed “diet pills” (read: amphetamines) to her. At the time, no one knew that speed and alcohol were contraindicated. The amphetamine made Garland an insomniac, so she took sleeping pills, got caught in a vicious cycle of sleeping pills and speed, and had a breakdown resulting in the loss of her studio contract.

Bulimic as a teenager, Fonda continued to purge as an adult because her slender silhouette conformed to Hollywood ideals of beauty. The director of one of her Oscar-winning performances once boasted to me that all he had to do to keep her weight in check was invite fashion models to the set. The models’ thinness, he said, intimidated Fonda and persuaded her “not to overeat.” A probable effect of this mind game was that it “persuaded” her not to eat at all.

In the film “Notting Hill,” Julia Roberts plays a Hollywood actress who confides to Hugh Grant’s character, “I’ve been on a diet every day since I was 19, which basically means I’ve been hungry for a decade.” The audience howled with laughter at that line, which brought tears to my eyes. To understand its autobiographical nature, compare an image of the voluptuous Roberts in “Satisfaction” (1988) with one of the visibly streamlined actress in “Pretty Woman” (1990).

Extreme dieting has been a way of life in Hollywood at least since the 1920s, when writers at Photoplay magazine criticized the practice as unhealthy. Next to the casting couch, it’s the most dangerous land mine for an actress—or TV personality (see Oprah)—because the pressure remains present throughout her career.

Ageism and the pressure to look young is the land mine every actress over 30 must negotiate. This is because, as a line delivered by Goldie Hawn, playing an actress in “The First Wives Club,” puts it: “There are only three ages for women in Hollywood: babe, district attorney and ‘Driving Miss Daisy.’ ” To secure continued employment, many actresses submit to surgeries and injectables. While some are widely criticized (condemned is more like it) for altering their faces, have you ever heard criticism of any male actors for having had, say, an eyelift?

Defanging and defusing the Harvey Weinsteins of Hollywood is a crucial step toward making the movie industry a safer workplace for women, particularly the youngest and most vulnerable ones. But what about the other land mines that imperil actresses and form a culture that holds women to different standards than men? Aren’t these, too, a form of workplace harassment?

Carrie Rickey
Contributor
In addition to writing film reviews and essays for Truthdig, Carrie Rickey has been a film critic at The Philadelphia Inquirer and Village Voice and an art critic at Artforum and Art in America. Rickey has…
Carrie Rickey

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