Whether we’re talking about picturesque Dutch windmills or modern wind turbines, spin has always been a key to power. Hollywood has been rife with scandal since its inception in the early 1900s and where there is scandal, there is a need to manage it. Enter: the spin of public relations.
Information has always been a powerful resource. Back in the Golden Era of Hollywood, J. Edgar Hoover recognized this and had the FBI descend upon Hollywood to gather information on figures who had begun to capitalize on their newly developed star power. Actors like Charlie Chaplin and Errol Flynn could suddenly be curtailed and controlled by their own lapses in judgment in their personal lives. Anyone who stepped too far out of line could be immediately forced to step back with threats of releasing unseemly tidbits that would cause their fickle fandom to turn on them.
It wasn’t only the government who saw the value in this information. Studio heads saw its worth as well and capitalized on it by way of morality clauses in contracts and keeping dossiers on their less well-behaved stars and starlets. If the folder got too thick or an actor stepped too far out of line, the reins of release were tightened. When that wasn’t a strong enough motivator, the coup de grâce of a blackball would end their once-storied existences.
In addition to the FBI and studio heads, another force emerged…the gossip columnist. Arguably the biggest rivalry for that sovereign crown was between Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons. Hedda had a readership of close to 35 million, so in my humble opinion she was the wearer of the regal diadem, but Louella scooped her on more than one occasion. Studios implemented “fixers” to step in when things went really far afield. Think “Mr. Wolf” from Pulp Fiction played exquisitely by Harvey Keitel. These cleaners could make a scandal disappear before a scent of impropriety could escape and waft towards the noses of the gossip bloodhounds.
This system worked for close to a century, with only whispers of truth escaping, that were written off as unsubstantiated rumor or Old Hollywood folklore. The powers-that-be circled their wagons to protect their assets, not unlike the pioneers of yore. Having your livelihood held ransom was often the most effective gag employed.
Fast forward to present day and we see that not much has changed in the way public relations are handled. For years Harvey Weinstein got away with utterly deplorable and criminal behavior while stars whose movies we willingly forked over our hard-earned money to see sidled up next to him with megawatt smiles affixed to their faces. We may never know how much they knew, but the rumblings were there, like a precursor to an earthquake. Eventually the Big One hit and the earth swallowed him whole. His shiny-smiled supporters seem to walk away unscathed though, and many of us scratched our heads wondering how that could be?
The answer is in their silence. Neither publicly defending nor decrying, powerhouses like Meryl Streep, Matt Damon, and Oprah Winfrey skated through the cavernous cracked streets in the wake of the quake with the skill of Kristi Yamaguchi. Sure, there were detractors on social media, but they barely made a ripple in the vast ocean of public opinion. Harvey alone took the fall and his enablers went on.
Part of the key to the success of public relations is to control the narrative. In the old days of Hollywood fewer people had access to damaging information in the first place. With so few people to contend with, it was easy to discover the currency that would buy their silence. From offering them an exclusive all of the way to suing them for breach of a non-disclosure agreement, their control methods were vast and effective.
However, we are now in the age of the citizen journalist. The relative anonymity of the internet has allowed whistleblowers to leave bread crumbs while staying out of the direct line of fire. This emergence has dented the once smooth coat of armor surrounding Hollywood, and it has weakened its impervious nature. Everyday people can now hoist the banner of causes that matter to them and rally the spirit of like-minded souls.
The most recent examples of this push back against the wall of silence surrounding Hollywood is on display in the bullying perpetrated by Chrissy Teigen and the embezzlement claims surrounding Tom and Erika Girardi. “Regular” folks are up in arms over the fact that justice hasn’t appeared to find its way to these less-than-humble doorsteps. The less-than-sincere apologies and claims of being an unwitting victim are falling on unhearing ears.
Try as they might, the spin doctors are unable to keep their feet on their pedals against the strong winds of discontent. The public is angry, and rightfully so. Any one of us would have faced major repercussions in our lives by now. These teflon figures, however, are still living lives of opulence and decadence and flaunting it for all to see. The inequity of that isn’t lost on the “little people.” In fact, they are rising in harmony against it.
Whether these particular influencers will feel a financial dent in their lifestyles is yet to be determined. Their high powered network of friends provide them a safe haven that few can afford. I do know this…the spin will keep working if we stand silent against the Goliath. The crisis teams count on the rapid pace of the 24 hour news cycle to push their scandal out of the spotlight as we collectively move forward to the next one. But what might happen if we all decide that Hollywood’s days of double standards are done? If we didn’t let the wall of silence barricade and protect the hypocrisy of Hollywood? If one David could defeat Goliath, imagine what hundreds of them could do. Keep speaking. Let them know PR spin has lost its power over the public.