When ‘No’ Meant ‘Maybe’

What Movies Taught Us About Sexual Misconduct

By Glenn Lovell

As new allegations of sexual misconduct arrive daily — from the high-tech sector, academia, state and national politics — it’s time to circle back and ask: What role have the movies played in conditioning a generation of men to believe, no matter the resistance, that they are entitled to sexual favors from interns, colleagues and fans.

With apologies to Rodgers and Hammerstein, a variation on their show tune about prejudice keeps playing in my head:

Men have to be taught from year to year /

That sexual harassment is nothing to cheer /

They’ve got to be carefully taught.

Examples of men physically abusing women in the movies abound. We can trace them to D.W. Griffith’s silent “Broken Blossoms” and, later, “Public Enemy” (Cagney using Mae Clarke’s face as a grapefruit juicer) and “The Philadelphia Story” (Cary Grant shoving Katherine Hepburn backward through her front door).

Since many of the alleged abusers now in the news — from fallen studio exec Harvey Weinstein to TV host Charlie Rose to actors Kevin Spacey and Richard Dreyfuss — are roughly Boomer age, they most likely were reared on movies from the 1950s and ’60s, when limits were less well-defined and “no” sometimes meant “maybe.”

This, of course, can  never be taken as justification for sexual harassment or assault. Hollywood has always been a lousy source of advice on how to conduct yourself in real-world relationships, where “no” means just that.
The movies of Weinstein’s and Spacey’s youths trafficked in a troubling double-standard: When an alpha male demanded affection screen, it was exhilarating and romantic, perfectly normal. When an aggressive female demanding attention, alarm bells  sounded. “Alert! Alert! Aberrant personality!”

In “The Graduate,” Dustin Hoffman’s Ben Braddock follows Elaine Robinson to UC Berkeley. In 1966, we applauded his determination. He was a die-hard romantic who wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. When Jessica Walter pursues Clint Eastwood’s Carmel disc jockey with a bit more fervor in “Play Misty for Me,” she’s an out-and-out loony, every red-blooded male’s worst nightmare.

When Charles Grodin in “The Heartbreak Kid” abandons his new wife on their Miami Beach honeymoon to pursue a spoiled sun goddess (Cybill Shepherd), he’s an incorrigible cad, yes, but one who’s living the American Dream.

And so it goes …

I saw Hitchcock’s “Marnie” when it opened in 1964. I was 15. Sean Connery, working the sang froid that had served him as agent 007, hires a private eye to find Tippi Hedren’s troubled title character, anConneryd when he runs her to ground, he sounds much like a big game hunter who has bagged a trophy antelope: “I’ve tracked you and caught you and, by God, I’m going to keep you!”

I can still remember the rush I got from Connery’s snarled pronouncement. It reinforced the sense of entitlement that we Boomer males learned from the movies, where persistence that at times amounted to societal-sanctioned rape was rewarded. Indeed, later in the same film, Connery, claiming his matrimonial prerogative, rapes Marnie on their cruise-ship honeymoon.

A decade earlier, in “On the Waterfront,” Eva Marie Saint’s Edie attempts to fend off Marlon Brando’s Terry Malloy. He breaks down her door and pins her to the wall; her pounding fists and cries of “Stay away from me!” soon give way to an embrace. This forced compliance was considered so exciting at the time the scene made it into the trailer.

It’s no coincidence that Toback, Dreyfuss, Steven Segal and others who have been accused of sexual harassment and assault are in the late 60s or early 7s. Producer Harvey Weinstein, in a statement following the New York Times’s publication of allegations by Ashley Judd and Rose McGowan, used this as his defense. “I came of age in the ’60s and ’70s, when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different,” he wrote. “That was the culture then.”

Dustin Hoffman was recently accused of inappropriate sexual overtures toward a 17-year-old production assistant during the filming of a 1985 TV adaptation of “Death of a Salesman.” Ironic, no? His Braddock character in “The Graduate” was once embraced as a counterculture icon for turning his back on his parents’ materialism and hypocrisy. Now, as we wince through Ben’s public shaming of Elaine (at a strip club, no less) and his dogged pursuit of her in Berkeley, the character seems more alienating than alienated. Once condoned as funny and irreverent his behavior today would qualify as stalking and warrant a restraining order or jail time.

Glenn Lovell has written about film for the Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times and Variety. He teaches film studies at De Anza College.

Published in San Francisco Chronicle (11-20-17)

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