For decades, the Harvey Weinstein name meant Hollywood royalty – awards, money, power. But privately, and for almost as long, it had another meaning for the women caught in his orbit.
Then in October 2017, some of them, including actor Ashley Judd, accused Weinstein publicly of sexual harassment. In speaking out, they lifted the lid on one of Hollywood’s biggest open secrets and lit the fuse that would ignite the #MeToo movement worldwide. More than 90 women would eventually go public with claims against Weinstein and his “casting couch”, many of them involving rape and other forms of sexual assault. Soon the veil would fall, too, from his network of spies and allies, as a trail of private settlements with alleged victims revealed just how far the industry had gone to keep complaints quiet.
Weinstein is not the only famous man to face claims of sexual misconduct in the fallout. But, as he stands trial for rape and assault in two jurisdictions, his case will have far-reaching effects on the future of #MeToo, the justice system – and the modern workplace.
So what exactly is he charged with? Who are the key players? How is the case unfolding? And why is it about more than just one movie producer?
Who is Harvey Weinstein?
Few executives in Hollywood history have wielded as much influence as Weinstein – the man famously thanked more times in award acceptance speeches than God (though slightly fewer times than Steven Spielberg). His production houses, Miramax and the Weinstein Company, helped turbocharge independent filmmaking with classics such as Pulp Fiction, Shakespeare in Love and Good Will Hunting. And alongside the 80-odd Oscars his movies have collected are a scattering of awards for his own humanitarian work.
But there were always rumours. Over the years, reporters had chased the tale of Weinstein’s alleged predation of women into dead-ends. People had signed non-disclosure agreements or were too afraid to speak. Knowing Weinstein’s sphere of influence extended beyond just Hollywood and into politics and the media, no one wanted to put their names to the stories.
So how did this all start?
In late 2016, actor Rose McGowan dropped an explosive tweet. She’d been raped, she said, and then warned by a lawyer she would “never win against a studio head”. She didn’t name the executive but it didn’t take long for people to connect the dots.
By 2017, Ronan Farrow – then reporting for NBC – and New York Times journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey were uncovering decades of sexual harassment settlements that had been buried by Weinstein’s company.
What does this have to do with #MeToo?
At the time, the social media hashtag #MeToo encouraging people to speak out against sexual violence was already trending. But the two bombshell investigations into Weinstein started an avalanche of allegations, against the producer and others, that quickly snowballed into a movement. More high-profile names joined the list of Weinstein accusers, including actors Angelina Jolie and Gwyneth Paltrow.
Now, more than two years on, Weinstein’s trial in New York is largely viewed as a watershed moment for #MeToo, a test of how the justice system has responded and how far the movement has come in holding powerful men to account as it throws up tricky questions of power and consent. Protesters, including a number of Weinstein’s accusers, held up signs and chanted outside the New York court, where inside prosecutors are painting the 67-year-old movie mogul as a well-established predator. But Weinstein himself insists the encounters were all consensual, sexual favours traded with eyes wide open in exchange for career advancement.
His lawyers say the trial is a case of #MeToo gone too far as backlash against the movement grows. The woman helming Weinsten’s defence, seasoned defender Donna Rotunno, has warned “women may rue the day that all of this started when no one asks them out on a date, and no one holds the door open for them”.
So what is he charged with?
While many of Weinstein’s accusers are willing to testify against him, the criminal trial in New York has boiled down to five counts of sexual offending involving two women. But among the charges of rape and assault is the more serious offence of predatory sexual assault, which relates to serious sex crimes committed against more than one person. If found guilty of that charge, Weinstein could face up to life in prison.
Not long after the first stories hit the headlines, police in New York, Los Angeles and London began weighing up cases against the producer. In Manhattan, the clock was ticking especially loud. Among the bombshell allegations published in The New Yorker by Farrow was an account of a 2015 police sting in which model Ambra Battilana Gutierrez had worn a wire and captured Weinstein apologising for groping her breasts the night before. Both the case and the tape were later thrown out by the prosecutor’s office, though Gutierrez wanted to press charges.
By early 2018, the NYPD had charged Weinstein with the 2013 rape of an anonymous woman, now known to be Jessica Mann, who was an aspiring actor at the time. He was also charged with committing a criminal sex act against Lucia Evans, who alleges he forced her to perform oral sex on him during what she thought was a casting meeting at his Miramax office in 2004.
The charge involving Evans was later dropped after a witness came forward saying Evans had recounted the incident to them as a consensual exchange (which Evans denies). Weinstein’s legal team seized on this as grounds to throw out the entire trial. But by the time the trial opened this January, fresh sexual assault charges had been added over the case of Mimi Haleyi, a former production assistant who says Weinstein forcibly performed a sex act on her in 2006.
On January 6, the same day that trial opened, Los Angeles police charged Weinstein with attacks on two other women in 2013: one involving rape and another sexual assault. LA police are not expected to issue a warrant for Weinstein’s arrest until proceedings finish in New York.
Why are only two victims’ cases in this trial?
Many of the allegations involve harassment or abuse falling outside the scope of criminal law and so can only be tried in civil cases. Other incidents happened in jurisdictions other than New York or too long ago to fall within the statute of limitations, such as a claim of rape by The Sopranos star Annabella Sciorra. Some women have deemed the personal cost of pursuing justice too high. Others, facing only civil avenues of remedy, have reportedly reached a collective $US25 million ($37 million) deal with Weinstein and the now-bankrupt Weinstein Company.
But in New York, a judge has allowed four other women to testify to establish a pattern of behaviour on Weinstein’s part, including Sciorra and one of the women at the centre of the LA charges.
The same strategy was deployed during the retrial of actor Bill Cosby, who stood accused of decades of sexual assault. He was eventually convicted in 2018 of drugging and attacking Andrea Constand, after her case was bolstered by the testimony of five other alleged victims.
Prosecutors have no physical evidence against Weinstein, so much of the trial will now hinge on the perceived credibility of the six women giving evidence.
What about the civil class action?
Dozens of Weinstein’s accusers have banded together to take civil action against the producer and the Weinstein Company and, in late 2019, a tentative deal was reportedly reached. The settlement offers $US25 million for survivors to divide among themselves, but does not involve an admission of wrongdoing from Weinstein. The money would also be paid by the company’s insurance, rather than Weinstein, and some women have since pulled out of the lawsuit over concerns about what it could mean for future claims. Actor Ashley Judd pressed on with her own civil lawsuit against Weinstein, vowing to “take him to trial”, but the bulk of the case was later thrown out by the LA courts.
Is there a pattern?
The alleged accounts of abuse so far do mostly share a similar pattern in which women – from assistants to actors – claim they were enticed into hotel rooms or offices alone with Weinstein to discuss advancing their careers. Once alone, there were demands for massages and sex. In some claims, Weinstein is said to have exposed himself or masturbated. In others, he is alleged to have erupted into violence, overpowering and forcing himself on victims.
Former assistants have spoken of wearing two pairs of tights as protection during late-night meetings on film tours, some have described the well-oiled mechanics of the predation itself – with other women often present at first to ease nerves and meetings mysteriously moved to hotel suites by Weinstein’s staff – and then the high-powered lawyers flown in afterwards to bury what happened under iron-clad non-disclosure agreements. Some claim their careers were then threatened, and even damaged, by the executive and his supporters. Detailed information on alleged victims, who were known as “Harvey’s Friends”, was also reportedly kept by Weinstein and his staff.
What has happened to Weinstein since 2017?
Free on bail, Weinstein shuffled past a crowd of protesters and into court for the first day of the New York trial this month. After recent back surgery, he was bent over a walking frame. Not long after the first allegations were published, Weinstein was ousted from his studio and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and from then he has lost much of his fortune, as well as his marriage. By February 2018, the Weinstein Company, was bankrupt.
US media report Weinstein has spent much of the past two years holed up in his Manhattan apartment and undergoing extensive therapy for sex addition. While he has maintained all incidents were consensual, he has apologised for “causing a lot of pain” and vowed to fix his behaviour. In December 2019, Weinstein told The New York Post he felt his charity work and achievements in making films by and about women had been unfairly overshadowed.
He has since been accused of tampering with the monitoring bracelet on his ankle and admonished by the judge in his New York trial for using his mobile phone during proceedings or speaking too loud.
How is the New York trial going so far?
The first days of the trial have delivered new twists and more graphic detail – including stories of Weinstein injecting himself with erection medication before one alleged attack and on another occasion turning up outside Annabella Sciorra’s hotel room in just his underwear, holding a bottle of baby oil in one hand and a videotape in the other.
“The man seated right there was not just a titan in Hollywood, he was a rapist,” prosecutor Meghan Hast said in her opening statement, pointing to Weinstein.
But the producer’s high-powered defence team say the case against him is “a preview to a movie you are not going to see”. Weinstein was not a master manipulator and all incidents had been consensual, his lawyers say – if anything some women had used Weinstein to advance their careers. They’ve unearthed a trove of emails and documents they say prove many of Weinstein’s accusers continued to interact warmly with him after their alleged attacks.
A forensic psychiatrist, who also testified during Bill Cosby’s retrial, told the jury of seven men and five women that it was common for victims of sexual assault to continue contact with their attackers, particularly if they felt pressured to stay quiet.
Who has given evidence so far?
Some of the most powerful early testimony has come from Mimi Haleyi, the first of the two women at the heart of the trial to take the stand. During the second week of proceedings, she recounted a vicious tug of war in Weinstein’s New York apartment in 2006, saying she had tried to fight off the producer as he lunged at her. He didn’t stop when she announced she had her period, Haleyi said, and she begun to sob as he removed her tampon and forcibly performed oral sex on her. She had said “no” over and over.
The Scandinavian was then a production assistant on Project Runway, working under a tourist visa. When Weinstein invited her to another meeting, this time at a hotel, she went.
“I believe I was trying to regain some sort of power or something,” she told the court.
When she met him, Haleyi said, Weinstein immediately pulled her onto a bed and had sex with her. She did not fight back though she did not want to have sex, she said, and blamed herself for that second encounter, over which Weinstein has not been criminally charged. Afraid for her visa and of Weinstein’s power, Haleyi said she didn’t call the police. She felt trapped.
“Obviously, Mr Weinstein has a lot more power and resources and connections and so forth,” she said. “I didn’t think I’d stand a chance.”
Under cross-examination, Haleyi was confronted with evidence of her continued contact with Weinstein, including a friendly email she sent him after they ran into each other in Cannes in 2008. She conceded she had been in contact with Weinstein “not often, but yes occasionally”.
Her former roommate Elizabeth Entin told jurors an anxious Haleyi told her about the first encounter a short time after it happened. She said she told Haleyi, “That sounds like rape. Why don’t you call a lawyer?” but Haleyi didn’t want to pursue it.
Weinstein’s lawyers pressed Entin as she conceded the pair had found the producer’s subsequent – and unannounced – visits to their apartment “funny”. Entin said they viewed Weinstein as a “pathetic older man trying really hard to hit on” Haleyi, recalling how her pet Chihuahua, Peanut, once chased him around the apartment.
As Weinstein left the courtroom, a reporter in the hall asked, “Mr Weinstein, are you afraid of Chihuahuas?”
Weinstein smiled. “Do I look like I’m afraid of Chihuahuas?”
Another early star witness for the prosecution was Sciorra, who fought back tears as she recounted how Weinstein had bulldozed his way into her Manhattan apartment in the early 1990s and raped her on her bed. Sciorra, now 59, said she tried to get the burly film producer off her by kicking and punching him. The encounter followed a number of inappropriate gifts from Weinstein, including X-rated penis-shaped chocolates, she said.
But the defence were ready – playing an old 1997 clip from Sciorra’s past appearance on David Letterman’s talk show in which she laughed that she often made up stories, such as her father raising iguanas for the circus, to enliven movie press junkets. She assured jurors she would never lie about something as serious as sexual assault.
Smoking gun or not, the story of how the defence got hold of the video quickly emerged on the blog of Letterman fan Don Giller, who said a private investigator had shown up on his doorstep one night during the trial with a subpoena. They wanted the YouTube clip he had posted of Sciorra, which was no longer live on the site. Giller recounted the sinking moment he realised the man was not there for the prosecution but for the defence, and later wrote he felt the clip had been taken out of context to attack Sciorra’s credibility.
“I feel awful helping them do that, but being in contempt of court isn’t on my to-do list today,” he wrote.
The day after Sciorra gave evidence, actor Rosie Perez arrived on the stand to corroborate her friend’s testimony that they had talked about the alleged rape shortly after it happened. Weinstein’s lawyers have suggested Sciorra waited so long to go public with the allegation because she was making it up, and asked her why she didn’t flee or call police when Weinstein arrived.
Jessica Mann is also expected to give key evidence regarding the rape charge as the trial continues, along with other Weinstein accusers Dawn Dunning, Lauren Fraser and Tarale Wulff. Witnesses to support Weinstein’s defence have not yet taken the stand.
As for Weinstein himself, he shook his head at times during testimony and took notes. Asked outside court how he was feeling, he said he “had good lawyers”. He is unlikely to take the stand himself.
How do the LA charges affect New York?
Even if Weinstein escapes conviction in Manhattan, he will have to stand trial on the west coast. While LA police can issue a warrant for Weinstein’s arrest, it is highly unlikely they would seek to, or be allowed to, disrupt an ongoing trial. The producer’s legal team say the fresh charges have made it harder to keep New York jurors impartial. One of the alleged victims in the LA case will give evidence in the New York trial regarding Weinstein’s character.