Now you know about Spacey, can you still watch his work?

The trouble with the Hollywood sex scandals is once you know, you can't not know. And once you know what Kevin Spacey and co have been up to, can you ever in good conscience watch their work again?

For some, the answer will be a simple no. Good luck to them. I admire, perhaps even envy, their moral certainty. But I can't share it. For me, the situation is far more problematic.

It should be obvious by now that there's something rotten in the state of Hollywood. It's not just about Harvey or Spacey or Cosby or Woody or Polanski or Dustin Hoffman or James Toback or Brett Ratner or Casey Affleck (and all the other men whose names are yet to emerge). It is not just about aberrant individuals. It's about an entire ecosystem in which men with a lot of power sexually exploit women (and, yes, sometimes men) who have none.

It happens in other industries too, but in arts and entertainment, sexual freedom and creativity are generally imagined to go hand in hand. Push back on a sexual advance, and there's a risk of being seen as a prude, someone lacking imagination or the willingness to take risks. In Hollywood, as so many have attested, it can jeopardise the prospects of getting that much-needed break.

Of course, the casting couch has been part of the furniture since day dot. What's news now is that people are calling it, and the industry's broader culture of harassment, out.

 Illustration: Illustration: Matt Davidson

Illustration: Illustration: Matt Davidson

As the tales have poured forth over the past month, one of the common themes has been that people knew what was going on. Assistants, studio executives, colleagues - they either knew, or strongly suspected. And of course the victims and survivors knew, though for a variety of reasons felt they couldn't speak out.

As the Harvey Weinstein story broke, it seemed at first a tale of a monster exposed. But while his sexual predation was news to most of us, other appalling aspects of his personality had long been on the public record. He was a renowned bully, an egotist, a man with an enormous amount of power who was willing to use it to get his way, in all aspects of life. Crucially, he was not alone.

If reports now emerging are to be believed, Kevin Spacey stalked the set of House of Cards on the look-out for new flesh to prey upon. As star and executive producer, the show could not have existed without him (and will probably cease to exist henceforth). Without him, all those jobs would disappear. So a lowly male production assistant may have been groped? Better, surely, to turn a blind eye than to topple that entire house of cards.

Such abusers have made their way into the public eye in fictional form, in films such as Swimming With Sharks and The Player, and the TV show Vinyl. In Entourage, the foul-mouthed, sexist, bullying agent Ari Gold stood as an archetype of a Hollywood norm and he became the star of the show. Now the actor who played him, Jeremy Piven, has been accused of sexual harassment (a charge he flatly denies).

It's not Hollywood's liberal approach to sex that's the problem per se, it's the linking of sex to creativity, and the imbalance of power that at every turn creates opportunities for predators. The industry is incredibly hierarchical, with power concentrated in the hands of a few (mostly white and male), and a constant influx of attractive young people desperate for a break. Some will do whatever it takes. Some of those in power assume they all will, and act accordingly.

The sexual revolution of the 1960s freed people from oppressive, and often hypocritical, religious and social orthodoxies. But a dismantling of traditional power structures was not among its upsides. As many feminist critics have pointed out, the greatest beneficiaries of the sexual revolution were those men who felt they had been granted access to unlimited sexual opportunity without any of the financial, emotional or familial obligations that marriage demanded.

The sexual revolution has reaped enormous benefits on screen too, allowing stories that touch on the most intimate aspects of human experience to emerge. Think The Graduate, Annie Hall, Tess, American Beauty, Manchester by the Sea.

Each of these is now tarnished to some degree by what we have been told about the off-screen behaviour of their star or director. But even assuming all those claims are true, does that mean we can no longer watch them with a clear conscience?

For me, that call will be made on a case-by-case basis, and it will be about the relationship between the person and the text. Could I watch The Cosby Show with its moral piety knowing what I now know about its star? Hell no. Could I watch Manhattan and not feel queasy about Woody Allen's wooing of Mariel Hemingway's high-school student? Again, no. But can I watch Annie Hall and still revere it as a wonderfully funny, warm, truthful piece of work about relationships and human frailty? Absolutely.

Kevin Spacey is tremendous in House of Cards and American Beauty and The Usual Suspects and Se7en because he lets the darkness shine through. With the benefit of hindsight, we might even say he was hiding in plain sight. I'd watch them all again, but with senses sharpened by knowing what previously I only suspected.

Maybe it would be right to simply boycott the work of everyone who has ever been revealed as a predator or a bully. Maybe that would send the message to Hollywood that we simply won't accept or condone that behaviour any longer, and if it continues to turn a blind eye, so will we. Hollywood would then feel it where it hurts most - in the bottom line.

I certainly can't argue with anyone who takes that line. But I'll keep looking at the work in the hope it says something truthful and noble - even if the people who made it are neither.

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This story Now you know about Spacey, can you still watch his work? first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.