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Meryl Streep’s “me too” moment

It's a man's world for Katharine Graham, as played by Meryl Streep.

It’s a man’s world for Katharine Graham, as played by Meryl Streep.

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald on December 29, 2017

Hollywood’s leading actresses are planning a co-ordinated protest against sexual harassment in the movie industry at the Golden Globe awards next month.

Multiple sources told People magazine that presenters and nominees, including Meryl Streep, Emma Stone and Jessica Chastain, will wear all black on the red carpet, and that talking points have been discussed to ensure that abuse and gender inequality are addressed in acceptance speeches.

At the New York press day for The Post, Streep doesn’t confirm or deny this rumour, but she does talk at length about the #metoo movement of women speaking out against powerful and abusive men. “It’s just a reckoning, and it’s great. I think it’s thrilling, actually, that it’s happening,” she says. “It’s the most optimistic – on the backs of some very broken women – it’s the most optimistic moment for me, as a feminist, that has come along in forty years. Forty years! It’s gonna change things, and I feel it.”

In The Post, Streep plays Katharine Graham, who became the Washington Post’s publisher after her husband killed himself in 1963. The movie dramatises her decision to publish extracts from the Pentagon Papers in 1971 – a defining moment in her career. Running the stories, exposing the government’s lies about the Vietnam War, won her independence from an all-male board that had belittled and sidelined her.

At the Mandarin Oriental hotel in New York, nine reporters are arranged around a table, with two chairs left vacant for Streep and her co-star Tom Hanks, who plays the newspaper’s editor, Ben Bradlee. As the actress sits down, she counts the men and women: ““Eight to three, right? That’s about the way it always is now. In 1971 I was graduating from college and there would be no women here.”

She addresses the two female reporters directly: “There’s something happening. Isn’t there something happening? There’s still too few of us.”

Liz Hannah wrote The Post’s script last year, and sold it to producer Amy Pascal a month before the election, in the anticipation that Hillary Clinton would soon be the USA’s first female president. When voters elected a man credibly accused of sexual assault by a dozen women instead, and later, Harvey Weinstein was exposed as a serial sexual predator, seemingly enabled in his depravity by half of Hollywood, the movie acquired a new and unintended resonance.

“This has dovetailed with another whole piece of history that has broken open and erupted, and has its own eloquence. Instead of reinforcing something that was hopeful, it’s underlining something that is happening right now for women,” Streep says.

In the two months since Weinstein was outed as a vile bully who pressured women into having sex with him and retaliated when they wouldn’t, scarcely a day passes without another marquee name being exposed as a rapist, a groper, a chauvinist or a lech. Actors Dustin Hoffman, Kevin Spacey and Louis CK, directors Brett Ratner, James Toback and Morgan Spurlock, and news presenters Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose and Mark Halperin have all been credibly accused of sexual harassment or worse.

“It’s interesting how Hollywood is at the epicentre of what is really an outbreak of watershed truth for women in every occupation,” director Steven Spielberg says, when it’s his turn to talk. “This has gone on in news and sports. It goes on in schools and factories. It goes on in the fields where farmers are working. It goes on with immigrants in this country. I hope we wake up to the fact that this is not just a Hollywood story: this is happening to women everywhere.”

Hanks points out that The Post was produced by Pascal and Kristie Macosko Krieger under the leadership of 20th Century Fox CEO Stacy Snider. “We had three female bosses, and we thought ‘isn’t that a wonderful thing,’” he says. “We had no idea that this tsunami of change and reckoning was coming down, and coming about for much more tawdry reasons but speaking to the same issue which is parity: are we a genderless meritocracy, or are we a…” Streep interjects: “club.”

Streep has been accused of being part of the club herself, having worked with Weinstein on The Iron Lady and August: Osage County. Conservative media has jumped on her acceptance speech at the 2012 Golden Globes, when she called Weinstein “God,” usually without printing the full quote: “I just wanna thank my agent Kevin Huvane and God, Harvey Weinstein, the punisher, Old Testament, I guess,”

Streep has denied any knowledge of Weinstein's serial sex attacks.

Streep has denied any knowledge of Weinstein’s serial sex attacks.

On December 18, actress Rose McGowan, who says she was raped by Weinstein, accused Streep of turning a blind eye to his abuse. “Actresses, like Meryl Streep, who happily worked for The Pig Monster, are wearing black @GoldenGlobes in a silent protest,” she tweeted. “YOUR SILENCE is THE problem. You’ll accept a fake award breathlessly and affect no real change. I despise your hypocrisy.”

Streep issued a statement in response: “I want to let her know I did not know about Weinstein’s crimes, not in the ‘90s when he attacked her, or through subsequent decades when he proceeded to attack others. I wasn’t deliberately silent. I didn’t know. I don’t tacitly approve of rape. I didn’t know.” The following day, someone pasted up posters in Los Angeles showing her hugging Weinstein and beaming, with a red banner obscuring her eyes: “she knew”.

At The Post press day, Streep says the only way to end the culture of sexual harassment is to appoint more women in senior roles: “If the Weinstein company, that board, had been half women, none of this would have happened. The first time a payoff came up, they would have said ‘this is for what? No, we’re not doing this.’ And the whole world will change when we have parity.”

Last year, according to Motion Picture Association of America figures, 52% of moviegoers in the USA were women or girls. Yet women directed just four of the top hundred films at the box office. The Centre for the Study of Women in Television and Film found that on the top 250 films, just 24% of producers, 17% of editors, 5% of cinematographers and 4% of sound designers were women.

The Sony Pictures hack in 2014 that cost Pascal her old job revealed ludicrous pay disparities, including the fact that Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams were paid less than Jeremy Renner for American Hustle. Streep has publicly backed a campaign for equal pay and representation. “We are after 50/50 by 2020. Equal means equal,” she told an audience at the Massachusetts Conference for Women, in conversation with feminist icon Gloria Steinem.

Powerful talent agency ICM Partners has committed to that goal, but as 40% of its agents and heads of departments are women already, this comes across as virtue signalling. The rest of the industry lags far behind. As prominent Hollywood publicist Kelly Bush Novak put it, true equality means “equal representation in our executives, directors, writers, showrunners, department heads, the DGA, WGA, PGA, IATSE and SAG-AFTRA. On boards of directors.”

One of The Post’s most satisfying moments occurs near the end when – minor spoiler alert – Graham reminds one especially chauvinist board member that the Washington Post is her company, not her father’s or her husband’s, and if he can’t see that he probably shouldn’t be on the board. Spielberg is convinced more and more women will experience this sort of vindication in coming years.

“There’s never been a pivotal moment quite like this. This is bigger than I’ve seen this before. I think our kids are going to look back on 2017 as a remarkable year when the silence had to stop and thousands of voices are being heard,” he says.

On March 4, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will hand out its awards. How, or indeed whether, it chooses to acknowledge Weinstein’s appalling behaviour, will tell us whether the industry is ready to confront a problem with sexism that can no longer be dismissed as the bad behaviour of a handful of influential old men.

The Best Actress award is due to be presented by last year’s Best Actor winner, Casey Affleck, himself credibly abused of sexually harassing a cinematographer and producer on the set of his mockumentary I’m Still Here. The women sued, and Affleck settled out of court in 2010. He continues to deny the accusations.

Streep is almost certain to be among the Best Actress nominees. If she wins, she will have the chance to make a powerful statement about Hollywood’s chauvinism, whatever colour of dress she wears.