“There comes a time when silence is betrayal”
-Martin Luther King, Jr.
“I’d like to invite you to my house to take a look at the script”, the director said casually over the telephone. He had given me his number and asked me to call him about a green-lighted film project he was working on after we met at a party.
“Why don’t we meet at Greenblatts Deli on Sunset instead? I believe it’s very near where you live, and I think I would feel more comfortable there,” I answered back in an even tone, trying not to let my voice reveal the disappointment. I’d been thinking that this time, a real professional opportunity was being presented to me. The suggested meeting venue however, seemed to indicate otherwise.
“What is wrong with you?? Do you know how many people in this town would love an invitation to my house? Do you actually think you’re above meeting me where I feel most comfortable? It seems you really don’t want to be considered for the part.” There was an edge in his delivery I had not detected in our previous conversations.
No, this is not another story about horrible Harvey Weinstein, but in some ways mine is eerily similar to recent accounts of his predatorial pursuits. I had pretty much forgotten all about my long ago encounter with a more obscure male film industry professional, the late writer-director Jonathan Kaufer, until I started reading the Ronan Farrow story in The New Yorker last week. Soon, memories of my short lived time as a struggling unknown actress in LA came roaring back.
In 1987, I was living in the San Fernando Valley and trying to break into the entertainment industry. Little did I know then that getting seen in Hollywood is all about your connections (I had none), and I was busy doing whatever I could: taking acting classes, performing in Equity Waiver theatre, waiting tables at night to keep my days open for possible auditions. My roommate at the time had already gotten her big break into film and secured her SAG card; she had landed a meaty supporting role in the hit film Valley Girl some years before I met her. She was in fact an authentic valley girl, born and raised, and we had hit it off while performing in an Equity Waiver play in Studio City together. I met several of her local friends at the many parties we threw together.
I first met Jonathan at a birthday party hosted at our apartment. My roomie made the initial introduction, describing him as a good friend; someone she had known for many years and had met at a youth summer camp. He seemed innocuous enough, friendly and while not very physically attractive, he was charming and funny. When he learned I was from the Bay Area, he started telling me about a film script he had written that was set on the UC campus in Berkeley. He thought there might be a small role in that film perfect for me, and suggested we meet over the script and explore the possibility of working together.
Against my better judgement, Mr. Kaufer lured me into his home in Laurel Canyon, a woodsy neighborhood of mostly prominent entertainment industry residents on the pretense of giving me a copy of a script he wrote that Tri-Star Pictures had picked up and added to their production schedule (in the end, the film was never made). Once I located the house and parked, I hiked up a long staircase up to Jonathan’s front door, which had been left open. He hollered out from somewhere inside that I should let myself in, surely a calculated move to ensure he was the one who made an entrance into our “meeting,” and not me. I stood waiting for him in the hallway until he appeared.
Next he ordered me to sit on the sofa in his living room while he fidgeted with a VCR machine, as he made a fuss about having a piece of tape he wanted to show me. We subsequently watched the tape of a young girl frolicking around a bunch of trees for about five minutes before he suddenly lunged at me on the sofa. Because I was born with finely tuned situation-alert internal radar, I was half expecting this to happen. I somehow anticipated the move and managed to escape his grasp. He literally chased me around the sofa a few times until I unexpectedly reversed my direction, sprinted down the dark hallway out of the house and back down the many narrow stairs to my car on the street. I sped away and never looked back.
I’m still thankful that I got away from that meeting relatively unscathed (especially after finding out not too long ago that he had previously been arrested for attempted murder), as I was aware of many stories of other young unknown actresses who had not been so fortunate. Another young actress friend had gone out on a date with a very well-known actor/director feeling really lucky and special, until after their dinner together she was unceremoniously date-raped in the back of the limo he picked her up in. I remember being shocked by both my experiences and these stories, having naively believed that the Hollywood casting couch methodology was old history and that in the modern 1980s, the business was beyond such barbaric tactics. Boy did I have a lot to learn.
The Harvey Weinstein scandal throws a glaring light on the realities of working in Hollywood. And because Harvey Weinstein is not alone in the entertainment industry, identifying only him as the sole poster boy for a rampant industry wide problem in reality will not change a whole lot. There is a vicious rumor cycle that male predators in the industry actively promote. Young actresses justify having to tolerate bad behavior by believing it’s simply the dues one must pay, because they’ve been told if they won’t pay it, a bunch of ambitious hopefuls right behind them will. Next. Even if a woman isn’t trying to land a part in front of the camera, she is often used, abused or at the very least exposed to others being complicit in such acts. I’m waiting for the day that more offenders get named and a large scale correction of the issue gets initiated. Maybe then there can be some real progress toward change.
The scandal has also inspired women in all industries to speak out about sexual harassment and assault in their own workplaces and pasts as well. Social media facilitates not only these admissions and but also a feeling of camaraderie amongst women who have their own stories to tell. But it can’t be only about women doing all the heavy lifting in order to change the status quo on sexual harassment in the workplace. Men are going to have to start openly acknowledging the problem, stop turning a blind eye to what they know is going on and begin exercising their power in a new direction: to usher it out of existence.
©2017 Lisa Ihnken All Rights Reserved, except where noted