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Satan's Casting Couch

The chorus of condemnation against Harvey Weinstein, as dozens of women have come forward to accuse the producer of serial sexual assault and harassment, has often turned on a quaint-sounding show-business cliché: the “casting couch.” Glenn Close, for instance, expressed her anger that “the ‘casting couch’ phenomenon, so to speak, is still a reality in our business and in the world.”

The casting couch—where, as the story goes, aspiring actresses had to trade sexual favors in order to win roles—has been a familiar image in Hollywood since the advent of the studio system in the 1920s and ’30s. Over time, the phrase has become emblematic of the way that sexual aggression has been normalized in an industry dominated by powerful men.
How did this seemingly innocuous phrase become so ensconced as a standard show-business trope? The casting-couch tradition originated in theatrical productions on Broadway well before the Hollywood film industry became the new locus of the entertainment world. In his book The Boys From Syracuse: The Shuberts’ Theatrical Empire, Foster Hirsch details how Lee Shubert, the eldest of three brothers who helped establish Broadway’s theater district in the first two decades of the 20th century, kept “an elegantly furnished boudoir, reserved for leading ladies and promising ingenues, and a shabby, spartanly furnished room with a single couch where he met chorus girls and soubrettes.”

“If you didn’t sleep with them you didn’t get the part,” the dancer Agnes de Mille would later recall about the Shubert brothers. “The Shuberts ran a brothel: Let them sue me.”
The phrase casting couch became linked to the Shuberts, at least in retrospect, as the etymologist Peter Tamony discovered. As recorded in the Historical Dictionary of American Slang, Tamony collected a usage example from 1931, describing an event that “happened some time ago, long before the casting couches were thrown out of the Shubert Building.”
By then, however, the idea of the casting couch had moved out west to Hollywood. In a 1920 article in Photoplay magazine, a New York journalist reported on “immorality in camera-land,” where “young women are not advanced in their chosen profession unless they submit to the advances of studio managers, directors, or influential male stars.”

The phrase casting couch had evidently not yet become part of Hollywood parlance, since it doesn’t appear in the Photoplay article. But in 1924, a silent stag film may have been responsible for introducing the expression to a wide audience. The film was titled The Casting Couch, and it featured the stereotypical scenario of an actress auditioning for a role and giving in to the salacious demands of the casting director. (It’s hard to know for sure if the title of the film actually dates to 1924, since the surviving prints of such “blue” movies have often been heavily edited after the fact.)
In her 1989 history of pornography, Hard Core, Linda Williams calls The Casting Couch “a classic of the genre,” quoting the wry “moral” on the movie’s final intertitle: “The only way to become a star is to get under a good director and work your way up.” Still, the phrase casting couch might have been considered a little too risqué for consumption beyond the prurient stag-film audience at that point.

That changed by the end of the Roaring ’20s, as sexually suggestive language worked its way into the mainstream. In 1929, Max Lief, a writer for the New York Daily News, published Hangover: A Novel of Broadway Manners, and the flap copy featured some colorful slang: “From wisecracker to highjacker, from 15-and-5 taxi driver to five-dollar cover nightclub pirate, from beminked showgirl to casting-couch producer—the ladder is long, but the dizzying denizens of the Gland Canyon known as Broadway somehow climb it.” (That’s right, a nickname for Broadway was “the Gland Canyon.”)
Five years later, in 1934, casting couch was considered a harmless enough phrase that it could be casually dropped into a newspaper column about Hollywood. The word sleuth Barry Popik uncovered an example from April of that year written by the syndicated gossip columnist Sidney Skolsky: “The casting couch song: ‘You oughta be in pictures.’” (The song “You Oughta Be in Pictures” had just become something of a Hollywood anthem after Rudy Vallee made it a hit.) Skolsky, as Popik notes, was responsible for circulating an even more famous bit of movie-business slang: The earliest known example of “Oscar” as a nickname for the Academy Award appeared in a March 1934 Skolsky column.

Despite these public appearances, the notion of the casting couch may still have been something of a Hollywood in-joke. Just a few years later, in 1937, a writer for the Chicago Tribune seemed to miss the suggestiveness of the phrase, using it to refer to a female-run casting bureau at a local radio station. Variety, as Matthew Dessem recently noted on Slate, took the opportunity to draw attention to the Tribune writer’s embarrassing slip-up.

Meanwhile, F. Scott Fitzgerald, who spent the final few years of his tragic life as an alcoholic hack writer in Hollywood, also became familiar with the phrase, working “casting couch” into his unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon, published after his death in 1941. In the story, Cecelia, the daughter of a movie producer, takes a car ride with Wylie, a down-on-his-luck screenwriter, and tells him about her plans to meet with a powerful producer named Monroe Stahr. She imagines the meeting in Stahr’s office is interrupted by someone coming into the room. “And you jump up quickly off the casting couch smoothing your skirts,” Wylie adds. The implication is obvious: There’s no need to spell out exactly what Cecelia is doing on Stahr’s couch.

Cite: https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainmen...he/543000/

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“The perils for women in Hollywood are embedded, like land mines, from an actress’s debut to her swan song,” says film critic and historian Carrie Rickey, “where moguls like Harry Cohn reputedly wouldn’t cast starlets like Marilyn Monroe and Kim Novak unless they auditioned in bed.”

Long before Weinstein there was Louis B. Mayer, who co-founded Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios in 1924. Mayer, the ground zero of this kind of abuse, had means, motive, opportunity and that critical piece of the puzzle: the whip. If women didn’t comply, he’d threaten to ruin their careers or those of their loved ones. Sound familiar?

Cari Beauchamp, author of “Without Lying Down: Francis Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood,” noted: “Mayer chased actress Jean Howard around the room. When she said, ‘No way,’ and went off and married Charles K. Feldman, the agent, Mayer banned Charlie from the lot. For a long time after, he wouldn’t allow any of Feldman’s clients to work at MGM.”

Mayer also allegedly groped the teenage Judy Garland, according to Gerald Clarke’s book “Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland,” and held meetings with the young woman seated on his lap, his hands on her chest. But that wasn’t the only damage done to the “Wizard of Oz” star. As Rickey clarifies, when it comes to abuse, “it’s not just the casting couch — it’s also the producer[s] who tell Judy Garland she’s not pretty enough or thin enough, so she gets a nose job and starts taking amphetamines to stay employed, and nobody knows that amphetamines and drinking can’t mix, and the pills lead to instability and sleeplessness and sleeping pills and more instability, and she falls apart.”
When the studio system consolidated in the late ’20s and early ’30s as talkies eclipsed silent movies, the men in charge of the Big Seven notoriously abused their power. According to Beauchamp: “Harry Cohn at Columbia Pictures and Jack Warner at Warner Bros. were Abusive with a capital ‘A.’ Mayer believed he’d built his studio brick by brick, it was his town, and he was king, so therefore he deserved all the perks of the kingdom. That was the attitude of most studio heads.”

Marilyn Monroe was passed from man to man, president to playwright to center fielder. This is another instance like that of Garland, where a star’s talent and beauty and charisma added up to low self-esteem, drug abuse and suicide in an industry that ate women for lunch. In Monroe’s memoir, “My Story,” she wrote with heartbreaking candor: “I met them all. Phoniness and failure were all over them. Some were vicious and crooked. But they were as near to the movies as you could get. So you sat with them, listening to their lies and schemes. And you saw Hollywood with their eyes — an overcrowded brothel, a merry-go-round with beds for horses.”
Just last year, veteran actress Tippi Hedren made headlines when she revealed in her memoir, “Tippi,” that director Alfred Hitchcock had sexually molested her. According to Hedren, the obsessive vision of the world he manifested on-screen extended to his treatment of women on the set. His treatment of the blond star of “The Birds” and “Marnie” caused her to stumble at what should have been the peak of her career (and is the subject of the BBC film “The Girl.”)

Cite: https://variety.com/2017/film/features/c...202589895/
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