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Movies, dining and things to do / Spokane and North Idaho

‘The Assistant’: What goes on behind closed doors

One of the less-noticed films that played last week in Spokane carries the inauspicious title "The Assistant." Following is the review of the film that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

One of the oldest Hollywood traditions is that of the casting couch. Even typing those two words – casting couch – brings back visions of old Hollywood where moguls were said to routinely require starlets … Judy Garland comes to mind … to please them in unmentionable ways just to win roles in the movies they produced.

But if the case of Harvey Weinstein proves anything, it’s that some traditions never die. Weinstein, who was found guilty last week of criminal assault in the first degree and rape in the third degree, has been accused of sexual abusing and/or raping dozens of women. And he’s hardly the only one.

The names of high-profile men in the entertainment industry accused of – in Bill Cosby’s case, convicted of – raping or sexually abusing women (and in some cases men) read like a celebrity who’s who: Kevin Spacey, Mario Batalli, Placido Domingo, Ben Affleck, former Pixar producer/director John Lasseter … the list goes on far past the point of deniability.

And in the cases of many of these women who have come forward, one thing is mentioned time and again: Everyone knew what was going on. Some may not have directly witnessed it. And not everyone was directly affected by it. But still, they knew.

So the question then is, how could such a thing happen? And how could it have gone on for so long before, as is the case today, some breaking point was reached?

That’s the question that the movie “The Assistant” explores. Written and directed by Kitty Green, whose best known previous film was the documentary feature “Casting JonBenet,” “The Assistant” stars the actress Julia Garner as Jane, a new-hire at a New York-based film production company.

Equipped with a degree from Northwestern, Jane harbors dreams of becoming a producer. For the moment, though, she is the office go-fer – arriving at the office long before anyone else, turning on the lights and fixing the coffee before getting down to the crux of her work, which involves everything from arranging travel for the company boss to accompanying young ingenues to a Manhattan hotel.

In between, she cleans stains off the boss’ couch, picks up discarded jewelry left presumably by women caught up in late-night – for want of a better word – meetings, tries to placate the head man’s angrily suspicious wife and, when she can’t, has to endure his profanity-laden reactions over the phone.

It is that last point, the phone call, that is one of writer-director Green’s most telling conceits: We never see the company head. We hear only his disembodied voice, over the phone, through closed doors, either laughing or yelling or instructing, but always as the one in charge and free to do what he wants, when he wants and to whomever he wants.

And everybody knows it. And nobody does anything about it. Not Jane’s office mates, who school her in how to craft a letter of apology to the boss. Not the other women who work for the company, few that they are. And certainly not the head of human resources, masterfully played by Matthew Macfayden.

It is that HR manager who lays it all out when Jane – plucking up her nerve – goes in to share her suspicions that the boss may be taking advantage of a clueless young women, from Boise of all places. Nothing, he tells her, will come of her complaint except that Jane herself will surely lose her job – and any chance of achieving her dream.

And besides, he adds, “You have nothing to worry about. You’re not his type.”

As if that is any comfort. Which, of course, it isn’t. What it is, though, is a particularly classic indication of how this dark, demeaning process went on, in real life, for so long.