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Culture Maven: Sexual Misconduct Has A Starring Role In Hollywood

Kevin Spacey. Harvey Weinstein. And now, Matt Lauer and Garrison Keillor.

The news and entertainment industries are embroiled in ongoing sex scandals that have the media, Twitter and morbid curiosities churning. Nearly 100 years ago, the film industry endured a series of equally shocking scandals that eventually resulted in a code of conduct for onscreen and off. But would the solutions then help Hollywood now?

Decades ago, before the movies could even talk, there was plenty of talk about a series of scandals in Hollywood that drew the white hot glare of public scrutiny. Popular comedian Rosco "Fatty" Arbuckle was accused of rape and manslaughter in the death of starlet Virginia Rappe. Renowned film director William Desmond Taylor was murdered. The killer was never found. And matinee idol Wallace Reid died in a sanitarium as he was trying to free himself from his drug addiction. 

These scandals and more sparked condemnation from religious, civic and political groups across the country, demanding the film industry clean up its act. The industry responded by instituting a rule of self-censorship known as the Hays Code, said Shari Zeck, GLT's Culture Maven and the interim dean of Milner Library at Illinois State University.

"This type of notoriety is not what Hollywood studios wanted," explained Zeck. "Hollywood had an interest in shaping up. The Hays Code was a preemptive strike against impeding government censorship. The scandals of the 1920s and other issues got the studios to tamp down on their talent, over whom they had absolute control, in terms of their careers."

"So there was a much more concerted effort to cultivate and protect star's images. Stars and their lives were of interest to the public. And the best way to keep the public coming back was to give them a curated spectacle."

That was old Hollywood, before the destruction of the studio system. Today, the landscape of the film industry is different, but old habits die hard.

"The old joke about the casting couch. That came from somewhere," said Zeck. "That's been a stereotype for a very long time. It didn't just come about in the last few weeks." 

"What's coming to light are practices that are pervasive in the industry. It's not a momentary blip in terms of behavior, but it might be a blip in terms of exposing people in power for their behavior and there being consequences for it. It remains to be seen how deeply lived these consequences are."

"Harvey Weinstein fell from power so quickly, as soon as some of these things starting coming to light in the mainstream media, is what's astonishing. I think as more women have positions of power that makes it easier to make men feel less free to do whatever they want. I think right now there's a lot of people who are feeling self-conscious about their past behavior and their current behavior. But I don't expect that to stick.  The long arc of history may bend toward justice, but it's a LONG arc of history."

Zeck speculated that blacklisting and grey listing will occur for a while in the wake of the revelations. But another Hays Code is unlikely in Hollywood.

"The entertainment industry is always malleable. There's great elasticity in the industry to absorb criticism, and it's much less likely to react as a whole, as it once did."

Meanwhile, changes are afoot at the embattled  Weinstein Company. The woman who led the U.S. Small Business Administration under President Barack Obama has submitted a bid to acquire the film studio. Maria Contreras-Sweet leads a group of investors with female leaders from private equity, venture capital and Hollywood.

And one aspect of the bid is getting a great deal of attention: It proposes to install a majority-female board of directors, with Contreras-Sweet as chairman.

Listen to the full interview

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Reporter, content producer and former All Things Considered host, Laura Kennedy is a native of the Midwest who occasionally affects an English accent just for the heck of it. Related to two U.S. presidents, Kennedy appalled her family by going into show business.