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Howard Hughes and Hollywood’s Original Harvey Weinsteins

A conversation with Karina Longworth, author of the new book ‘Seduction: Sex, Lies and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood’

Throughout the early 20th century, few people received more media attention than Howard Hughes — thanks, in large part, to the highly creative publicist he employed throughout his career. But although he was often pictured in newspapers and magazines with numerous leading ladies at his side, the press never really told the truth about these relationships. Even Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator sanitized Hughes’ romantic pursuits, with female characters such as Cate Blanchett’s Katharine Hepburn and Gwen Stefani’s Jean Harlow serving mostly as accessories, despite their own stardom and accomplishments — and most of all, despite how Hughes really treated, and frankly, used them.   

That’s the reality Karina Longworth offers in her new book Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood, which is out on Tuesday. In it, Longworth, the creator of the cult-favorite podcast You Must Remember This, employs her skills as both a patient researcher and highly entertaining writer to fill in the gaps about Hughes and his women. Tracing both Hughes’ personal and professional relationships, a distinction that was often blurred — as it was among many, if not most, men in the business at the time — Seduction illustrates the rotten foundation Hollywood was built upon, a foundation that created generations of Harvey Weinsteins.

I recently spoke to Longworth about how Hughes projected his sexual fantasies on screen (in turn, making them America’s sexual fantasies); the ways in which he controlled the pay scale for the early women of Hollywood; and his legacy through a #MeToo lens.

If you hadn’t selected Hughes for this book, do you think any of his male contemporaries make comparable subjects?
First of all, I was interested in some of these specific women. So Hughes is kind of the backbone of the story because of his different relationships with these women. But Hughes was unique in that he was continually antagonizing the censorship system, which had a lot to do with how women were presented on screen, and what the opportunities there were for the kinds of roles they could play, etc., etc.

Certainly, there were other film moguls who treated women badly and exploited them, trading access to good parts for sexual favors, and all of that stuff. But Hughes did things in a more extreme and idiosyncratic way. When he was making Cock of the Air, it was nebulous as to what the censors could actually push back on. After that, it was more clear. Every film producer who was making films that had anything to do with sexuality was always pushing the envelope, especially in regards to how much of a woman you could show and how much sexuality you could show. But nobody really made it their project to do that the way Howard Hughes did.

Keeping in mind how influential movies are to the audiences that experience them, it seems so consequential that by projecting their own desires onto the screens, someone like Hughes deeply shaped the way his audiences thought about sex and gender — especially because of how much less media existed then compared to today.
Hughes had the unusual power of really being able to force his own fetishes into these movies. Certainly other filmmakers did that as well, like Josef von Sternberg in his movies that he made with Marlene Dietrich — the subtext of those is all about his own sexuality, which has a lot to do with sublimation, withholding and obfuscating desire. But yeah, for somebody who wasn’t really a director, who was primarily a producer, Hughes was able to get a lot of his own sexuality into his movies.

In the book, you quote Jean Harlow saying she felt like “a bitch in heat” because of the hypersexualized way in which she was portrayed, even though she didn’t feel especially sexual. In what ways did Hughes enjoy discovering new female stars like Harlow, and how did he turn her into the quintessential “blonde sex goddess” she never wanted to be?
Jean Harlow was somebody who looked really sexy, but wasn’t comfortable with her sexuality and didn’t take any pleasure out of projecting herself as a sex symbol. Hughes gave her her first major film role in Hell’s Angels. All he wanted her from her was that sexual persona he projected onto her. And when they had trouble getting it from her, he found ways to force her to get it. For example, he made sure her costumes were incredibly threadbare and very open, going as far to mandate the design of the dress she wore in Hell’s Angels. He then focused the publicity of the film on this idea that she would be basically naked in it.

I mean, there are posters of this movie insinuating her body is causing men to fly their planes into the ground. That wasn’t who she felt like she was at all. But it became a self-fulfilling proficiency in this really tragic way when her first husband killed himself, or when he died in what looked like a suicide. People have different conspiracy theories about it.

Is it ever hard to extrapolate the “real stories” from this time when so much of the historical documentation — or stories told about the culture of the golden age of Hollywood — are grounded in the accepted mythology of someone like Hughes?
Well, the timeline of my podcast is that it’s the secret and/or forgotten history of Hollywood’s first century. And the secret history part is sort of this feminist read of the past. Because you can read the narratives that are told from a patriarchal point-of-view, and then you can put together the pieces and try to empathize with what the woman would have felt.

Is that perspective becoming something more people are interested in as time goes on with the podcast?
For a long time in our culture, there’s been this idea that feminism is kind of a drag and not fun. Like it’s not sexy. Certainly, over the past few years, that’s changed a lot. It’s almost flipped completely around. I hope it’s not a phase, but I’m a little worried about a backlash to culture becoming so woke so fast. Everything’s cyclical, and hopefully, even if you have to take one step back for every two steps you take forward, you can still make progress.

I love the anecdote from the book about Ann Dvorak making the same amount of money as the toddler who played her son in Three on a Match, only for its sheer insanity. In particular, how was Hughes consistently earning money off of actresses by constraining them to his own comprehensive contracts, and then renting them out to other studios?
This is something that Howard Hughes didn’t invent, but he took it to another level by doing it all the time. It was his way to make money without doing anything. The way the contract system worked in Hollywood — not just for women either, although you could argue that women were more reticent to speak up against it and to try to negotiate for better terms — was that you’d sign long-term contracts so that you could be in any movie. You either signed up with a producer or with a studio, and then the studio would usually dictate that you got incremental raises every six months until the studio decided whether or not to continue picking up your option.

And so, it was completely like at-will employment, like you couldn’t leave, but the studio could basically drop you at any time. Also, if the studio wanted to make a deal with another producer or another studio, they’d loan you out at whatever the studio negotiated with the other studio. You were property who would only get your regular weekly salary that you always got.

For most stars, maybe they made three movies a year at their regular studio, and one movie every couple of years for another studio, so this wasn’t that big of a deal. But with Howard Hughes, after Hell’s Angels, he had a hard time generating material for all of the stars that he had under contract. And so, to keep money coming in, to keep his investment in them paying dividends, Hughes would loan them out to other studios. They would get paid the bargain-basement rate that he’d signed them at, while Hughes would get increasingly larger amounts of money because these women were becoming bigger stars.

Is there any historical precedent for a movement like #MeToo, in which women in the industry collectively spoke out about male abuse and power?
No, this is a cataclysmic change over the past couple of years. There was just no venue for women to bind together as a group, and there was no incentive for people to talk about these things publicly. Because if they wanted to have any kind of career at all, the men that they were speaking out against were more powerful than them. The thing that really changed — and you could argue about this — is that Harvey Weinstein wasn’t as powerful as he used to be. Like all of his power over the past maybe 10 or 15 years had been in his ability to get Best Picture winners. In the 1990s, he was making all of the best movies, and everybody — actresses, actors, directors — wanted to be in business with him because he could get movies made that nobody else was getting made, and he could turn them into mainstream hits.

But this hadn’t been the case in recent years. The power structure had shifted. There’s a lot of factors to that. There’s the internet. There’s globalization of the entertainment industry. There’s the fact that most companies that make movies are owned by companies that don’t have anything to do with movies. There are so many factors that have led to this movement, and these are things that weren’t in place even five or ten years ago.

There’s a point in the book where Jane Russell is talking about how she thinks that girls shouldn’t complain about being locked in a house by Howard Hughes because they’re lucky that he chose them to put under contract. I don’t think that’s that old-fashioned of a point-of-view. I mean, I honestly see it in comment threads on the internet today: “What are these actresses complaining about? They knew what they were getting into. They know the casting couch is endemic to Hollywood. If they don’t like it, they should get another job.”

In that way then, did Hollywood invent fake news? And maybe more importantly, is Hollywood still running on fake news?
I wouldn’t say that Hollywood invented fake news. I’d say that happened in the yellow journalism battle between Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer II — the newspaper barons a little bit before Hollywood. But Hollywood perfected fake news. That’s really clear to me after doing research for this book — the extent to which publicity was never supposed to be news. It was always supposed to be a parallel narrative to the movies they made. Most of the media about movies — whether it’s items in mainstream, supposedly legitimate newspapers; whether it’s in fan magazines; whether it’s in magazines that purported to tell you the truth about the film industry — most of it was planted by publicists. This is from the beginning of the industry, and if anything, it’s gotten better over time.