I Was Asking for It: Sexism, Sexual Harassment, and Ageism in Show Business

By Annabelle Gurwitch

Like Harvey Weinstein, I, too, came of age in a different era. Ten years his junior, the air was charged with an intoxicating mixture of sexual energy and drug fueled adrenaline in the winter of 1980 as Harvey Weinstein began his ascension as a film producer and sexual predator and I landed in New York to study experimental theater at NYU.

As a freshman, I didn’t think twice about sleeping with my English professor, a graduate student with exactly negative zero prestige. It wasn’t a power play on his part when I invited myself to his apartment and it was completely consensual when I snorted cocaine off his chest at night while he recited Wallace Stevens poems. He awarded my classwork with a B, which I’d come by honestly. I was probably a C-minus student in the sack.

My dream was to act in socially progressive avant-garde theater where you had a pretty good chance of sleeping with the majority of the cast. I’d been raised by a mother who’d given me a subscription to Ms. Magazine and I’d gotten the message: I was free to be me and do you. Or not.

These were days before AIDS ravaged New York City so when a fellow student announced, “I just got out of the Navy where I discovered that I was bisexual,” it seemed like the perfect reason to invite him back to my dorm, where we had unprotected sex. I strode the Lower East Side in sheer blouses and undergarments, nothing you couldn’t see on a Donna Karan runway. I had a satirical lounge act with performance artist, John Sex, who graced the stage at Danceteria clad solely in a g-string, python, and his wicked sense of humor. “Who’s that girl?” I said to a buddy when Madonna followed us in one cabaret line-up. Soon the world would know her name, but back then, she was just one of many downtown artists who were asking for it. “It” being the opportunity to be seen and heard.

When my family’s finances tanked and I was dead broke, I headed uptown to ask for television and film work. Actors emerging from conservatories like Juilliard and Yale had access to annual auditions for regional theaters, casting directors and agents, but performers like me were on our own. I was scrappy Jewish girl with a modicum of talent, a double-perm, and a surfeit of desperation, who’d wrangled her way into two professional theatrical productions — a Jacobean tragedy at The Public Theater and an Off-Off Broadway two-hander playing the teenage granddaughter of a holocaust survivor — so I was over the moon for any opportunity, even if it meant playing prostitutes. The roles available for females at that time were mostly divided into two categories: good girls and bad girls, and if you were ethnic or offbeat, you were definitely one of the latter.

Every actress I knew had a leather mini skirt, high heels, tube top, teasing comb, and a can of Aqua Net at the ready for such casting calls. Many kept “chicken cutlets” in their totes along with their 8x10s and résumés. You’d pad your audition push up bra with the inserts to augment your cleavage. Twenty-five years later, I’m floored by the brilliant careers that artists like Lena Dunham, Brit Marling, and Broad City’s ballsy Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Galzer’s have carved out for themselves. Sadly, my imagination at the time stretched only as far as priding myself on breaking the size ceiling — I would portray only prostitutes with naturally small breasts. I got my wish! My first on-camera role was “Latina Prostitute,” I was #4 in a brothel line-up being frequented by a series regular, on As The World Turns. I rehearsed my one line, “Put yourself in my hands,” over and over in a disastrous Spanish accent. Even my mother was thrilled. She penned a fan letter to CBS asking to see more of #4. Maybe it worked, because casting director, Betty Rae, who championed many theater actors, including Kevin Bacon and Marisa Tomei, called me in to play a troubled gang girl, a kind of prostitute, with her drug problem and suggestive wardrobe, on The Guiding Light, a role that spanned several years.

I went on to play numerous prostitute roles, convincing myself that I was displaying enormous range as I portrayed not only streetwalkers but high-priced call girls and even working girls in the old west. It was during that period that I discovered the difficulty of being taken seriously while dressed to seduce.

The author in the 1980’s.

On my first gig in a prime time network program, after going through hair and makeup, I was told that the series star was requesting to see me in his trailer. I’d heard the rumors — do not go to his guy’s trailer alone — but he was also directing the episode. I’ll never forget the way the assistant director avoided eye contact as he escorted me in and shut the door behind me.

I was wearing the tiniest of tube tops, a Band-Aid-sized skirt, bare legs, towering heels, and a Kabuki mask’s worth of “hookery” makeup. It’s my recollection that the star/director was reading a magazine story about himself, which only added to my feeling insignificant and intimidated. I can’t remember anything that was said because I entered a kind of fugue state. Maybe he suggested we rehearse and maybe I said I didn’t think it was necessary? I managed to excuse myself from the trailer. The entire encounter lasted all of 10 minutes. I felt dizzy and my brain was racing: this is that thing I’ve heard about…had I said something in my audition that led him to believe I was asking for it? I racked my brain; I was certain it was my fault. I remember despairing over how he was ruining my first big budget nighttime series experience. That evening, I confided in another actress on the show who consoled me. She said she’d been there, to stay strong, and she had my back.

On the set, I was terrified of being fired and felt shaky during the entire shoot, but there was no retaliation whatsoever. It’s entirely possible that the star/director wasn’t aware of the uncomfortable position he’d put me in and wasn’t trying to capitalize on the power disparity between us. I doubt this interaction made any kind of impression on him, in fact, I’m sure of it. A decade later, seated on pews a few feet from each other during mass at the Episcopal school our kids attended together, he looked right through me and I felt that same queasy feeling in his presence.

Those prostitute roles led to more challenging and varied opportunities, some of which I auditioned for in hotel rooms. Directors and producers are often working on location and, as a matter of convenience I had scores of professional meetings in hotel suites. Sometimes a bathrobe was just a bathrobe. When I read for a role opposite Rodney Dangerfield in what would be the last film in his career, he was seated in his trailer, in a rumpled bathrobe, smoking a joint. I know at least five comedy writers, all male, who met with him in that same bathrobe. Different joint, presumably.

One of the joys of acting for me was the ability to swiftly forge intimate relationships. I felt an empowering sexual sovereignty when enacting eroticism in a safe environment in the service of storytelling, not to mention that I got to make out with some pretty terrific kissers too. There was the Movie of the Week where Bryan Cranston and I played co-workers engaged in an illicit affair. We met, shook hands, and 10 minutes later, we laughingly navigated our way through a sex scene on a couch, shoot hands again, and parted ways. That remains one of my most satisfying, if short-term, romantic relationships. I still count several male writers I met while shooting a comedy series for HBO as my friends. I’d insisted that my scene, playing as a prostitute on her lunch break, would be funnier if I was topless. I felt so comfortable that I spent the entire day shirtless, while they politely averted their eyes.

During my actressing years, I never was sexually assaulted, but I felt emotionally abused by the producer who raged at me on the phone, yelling that if I turned down a role in a project I’d not only never work again but “he’d fuck me up the ass.” I was humiliated by a boorish co-star who loudly berated me in front of the crew insisting that I wasn’t a real actress unless I allowed him to stick his tongue down my throat and grope his genitals in a love scene that was being shot from at least 200 feet away and punished with “the silent treatment” after rejecting an actor’s pleas to take me lingerie shopping when the cameras stopped rolling after a particularly steamy scene. In similar interactions, the actor was inevitably someone whose name was higher up in the credits than mine, and I was always stunned when the consensual contact was violated, having buried each incident deep in my memory. Confidence shattered, my work in those projects inevitably suffered.

As actresses come forward with their accounts of opportunities evaporating when sexual favors were rejected, I would be less than forthcoming, though I’m hesitant to admit, that I mourned the loss of the male gaze as I felt it fade. I knew what lies at the other end of the spectrum is another kind of disappearing act for women in Hollywood. Leading media diversity researcher Dr. Stacey Smith at USC puts it bluntly in her reports: females function as eye candy in films. She reports that 13-20-year-old females are just as likely as 21-39 year olds to be shown in sexy attire and with some nudity on screen, so perhaps it’s not a surprise that when you’re no longer seen as sexually desirable you begin to vanish from sight. The latest statistics tell us that only 19.9 % of speaking roles go to females on screen between the ages of 44-64. I haven’t found statistics that reflect women on screen from 65 up, because you probably could count them on two hands.

A few months prior to my 40th birthday, I got a call from the executive at TBS, my employer for six years on the series Dinner and a Movie. “We think we can get higher ratings if we replace you with a younger girl.” I had the exact same spinning sensation I had in the star/director’s trailer. “Whaaat?” He repeated the sentence. I replied: “Fuck you. And your fly is always down.” Each time I’d met with him, the zipper on his pants was open. I believe it was merely carelessness on his part, still, it was uncomfortable. That was the only reply I could manage.

I immediately called my agent and reported the conversation. “Is that legal cause for being fired? Should we sue? Should I call the press?” “Not if you want them to pay out your contract. And don’t repeat this if you ever want to work again.” I didn’t.

My leather mini skirt has long since been retired. I’ve reached the age where I know if my person were ever violated, no one would say, she was asking for it. I often joke that I could commit a crime in Hollywood and get away with it, because as a woman of a certain age, I’m completely invisible. I remain hopeful that we are at the precipice of change. Currently, I’m adapting my latest book for a television series that centers around the years I spent caregiving for my parents. The mother is a woman in her mid-70s. Maybe, as I’m I’m in my mid-50s, I’ll get the chance to read to play my own mother.

Leave a Reply