'Untouchable' digs into roots of Harvey Weinstein story

BBC doc premiering on Hulu in the US

By Brian Lowry, CNN
via CNN

(CNN) - After almost two years of coverage, one might think there's not much new to say about the alleged sexual predations of Harvey Weinstein. "Untouchable," a BBC documentary premiering on Hulu in the US, overcomes that skepticism -- not just through interviews with alleged victims, but also former employees and associates contemplating the extent of their (and Hollywood's) complicity.

The portrait that emerges in director Ursula Macfarlane's film -- which made its debut in January at the Sundance Film Festival -- depicts Weinstein as a brilliant showman, cut from the same cloth as the early studio chiefs. At the same time, he was a bully -- as former Miramax president Mark Gill puts it, "An overlord who lived by the most vicious methods possible in order to instill fear."

As awful as those qualities sound, the film suggests the volcanic temper and ashtray-throwing outbursts actually might have helped obscure what subordinates recognized about behavior he sought to keep hidden. As Miramax employees note, Weinstein was a mass of contradictions -- someone who could turn on the charm to woo Hollywood talent, awards voters and the media.

Perhaps foremost, "Untouchable" provides the historical foundation to understand not only how Weinstein could have gotten away with what he allegedly did for so long, but how the entertainment industry's culture and unequal power structure silenced those who might speak out. (Weinstein and his attorneys have denied "any allegations of non-consensual sex" and he pleaded not guilty this week to new charges of predatory sexual assault in Manhattan criminal court.)

From that perspective, "Untouchable" extends beyond the particulars of Weinstein's story to broader consideration of the environment that allowed abuses to go unchecked.

As context, the film goes back to the creation of Miramax (named after Weinstein's parents), which Harvey and his brother Bob turned into an awards powerhouse. The upstart company peaked early with the trio of "My Left Foot," "Cinema Paradiso" and "Sex, Lies and Videotape."

Miramax movies made money and won awards. That heady combination explains why stars -- eager for such adulation -- flocked to the company. Weinstein essentially invented the art of modern Oscar campaigning, employing bare-knuckled tactics that were validated by the parade of winners shown publicly thanking him as they brandished their trophies.

For employees, those victories came at a price in terms of dealing with Weinstein's tyrannical side; still, even many of them profess to have been surprised -- at least for a time -- when revelations began to surface about alleged sexual assaults.

Some of the Miramax alumni interviewed echo columnist A. J. Benza, who says he "just assumed" during those years that stories about Weinstein and women were consensual. "Women were just part of the thing," he said. "They come along with the power."

Journalist Ken Auletta, who profiled Weinstein relatively early, said he was aware of reports Weinstein was a predator, but Auletta was unable to unearth tangible evidence and people willing to speak at the time. Ronan Farrow, who eventually (along with the New York Times) exposed Weinstein, discusses the producer's elaborate efforts to discredit potential accusers and scare off reporters, which included hiring private operatives to dig up photos of Weinstein with smiling women he had allegedly assaulted.

The emotional core of "Untouchable" resides with Weinstein's alleged victims -- Rosanna Arquette, Paz de la Huerta and Hope D'Amore among them -- who share strikingly similar accounts. Actress Erika Rosenbaum concedes she had qualms about meeting with him privately, but adds, "You take risks when you're young and hopeful and trying to make it in a seemingly impossible industry."

There is enough material here for two documentaries, but Macfarlane presents it with economy, probing key questions that have hovered over much of the #MeToo coverage: How could people not have known what allegedly transpired, and to what extent did they not want to know?

"Untouchable" doesn't provide all the answers, but it frames this still-unfolding story -- and the entertainment industry's awakening to it -- in stark, thoughtful and unsettling detail.

"Untouchable" premieres Monday, September 2 on Hulu.

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