I’ll Vouch for It: James Toback Is Capable of Sexual Harassment
Glenn Whipp’s Los Angeles Times story about 38 women’s allegations of sexual harassment by film director James Toback caught my attention when I spotted it Sunday. And reading Toback’s denials in the article revived memories of similar advances he made on me some 16 years ago despite the fact that he had no power over my career—I am a journalist, not an actor.
In 2001, I was a cub reporter for the New York Daily News, covering entertainment and happenings around town for one of the paper’s syndicated columns. I was assigned to meet Toback for an interview and a later event in Brooklyn featuring “Taxi Driver” screenwriter Paul Schrader.
I was lucky to have been forewarned about Toback’s reputation by an industry contact who made it clear that the director of “The Pick-up Artist” was given to off-color behavior around women and that his proclivity wasn’t exactly a secret. That tipoff represents one of a couple of key ways in which my account may differ from those of some of the women who allegedly were targets of Toback’s language and actions.
The interview was set at the Manhattan restaurant where, he wasted no time in mentioning upon meeting me, he had filmed a key scene for his 1978 film “Fingers,” starring Harvey Keitel. As I approached our meeting spot, I watched Toback stop a young woman on the street and thought about how lucky I was that my occupation would offer me insulation.
I was wrong. Toback let little time pass before leading our discussion in the direction that the women in Whipp’s report described. When I mentioned, as we scanned the menu, that my purse had been stolen during a dinner out with friends the night before, Toback asked if I was angry with the thief. I replied that that seemed beside the point, as the incident had struck me as an unfortunate rite of passage in big, unruly cities like New York. That wasn’t a satisfactory response. Toback leaned in and asked, in a conspiratorial tone, “Did it make you want to kill him?” I barely had time to react before he followed up with his next question: “Do you shave or wax your pubic hair?” When I replied that I didn’t think that was relevant to our discussion, he called upon (junk-) scientific authority, citing studies that had purportedly shown a correlation between pubic hair growth patterns, testosterone levels and aggressive behavior—some absurd, genitally specific knockoff of phrenology. I don’t think our drink orders had even arrived by this point.
Over the course of that interview, at the Schrader event and in a follow-up phone call to my workplace, Toback worked an unfortunately well-known casting couch routine—this despite the fact I repeatedly told him that I was absolutely not interested, and that I was a reporter, not an actor. No matter; his tape ran on a loop. He had a plan: I would co-star in a film project with Lucy Liu and Matt Damon! Even better: I would star in a biopic about a little-known feminist heroine who was long overdue for her close-up (Nicole Kidman was developing a similar project at the time and we would beat her to it!). As a preliminary step, Toback suggested that he fly me to Los Angeles to stay with him for 48 hours, as he would need to get to know me inside and out. But, he declared, “I wouldn’t fuck you unless you begged me to.”
I met these comments with uncomfortable attempts to reframe our interaction according to the initial terms, but increasingly my appeals to professionalism seemed, and were, ineffectual.
The second way my account differs from that of other women who have relayed their stories about Toback is that I didn’t think of him as having any significant power over me. He wasn’t my boss or—at least directly—in control of my fortunes; he was just another of many industry types I was to talk to that week. If our conversation didn’t yield anything of interest for the column, there would be other options to use. That said, I of course had been assigned by my employer to interview him.
At the time, I naively chalked up his remarks to a transgression of social bounds rather than professional standards. I told the man I was dating about what happened, made sure he accompanied me to the Schrader event, and left it at that. This sort of thing didn’t seem to be news in my business, I had deduced, although like many other women I felt a pang of responsibility, as though someone savvier would have immediately known what to say or do to shut Toback down before he got started. In short, I had taken up the idea that the onus had fallen on me to prevent a bad situation from escalating, and not on him to refrain from causing it in the first place.
After the episode was over, the same contact who had initially clued me in about Toback circled back with a follow-up question: “So, did he offer to put you in a movie?”