The Invention of The 'Casting Couch'In Depth
“I’m angry, not just at him and the conspiracy of silence around his actions, but also that the ‘casting couch’ phenomenon, so to speak, is still a reality in our business and in the world,” said Glenn Close in response to the flood of accusations against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein.
The trope of the casting couch—a term that evokes a predatory producer or casting agent, demanding sexual favors from actresses in exchange for a shot at the big time, but which is also used to describe a whole range of behaviors we’d now call sexual harassment—has popped up again and again in the wake of Weinstein’s toppling. The Daily Beast, Slate, the Atlantic, Variety, and the Associated Press have all written about the concept’s movie-business history in the wake of the revelations.
While the term conjures Old Hollywood, the association between actresses and sex goes back much further than the 20th century. Long before the advent of recording technology, theaters were assumed to be basically brothels and it was taken for granted that the women working in them were sexually available. “There is a very long history of a kind of literal quid pro quo, but also simply women subject to the harassment or attacks and abuse of other actors, of directors and managers, of wealthy audience members,” looking back to earlier centuries, said Kirsten Pullen, head of the theater department at the University of Illinois and author of Actresses and Whores: On Stage and in Society, told Jezebel.
Women first appeared onstage in England in the 1660s. Theater had been banned by the Puritan government in 1647 and restarted under the Restoration—the glittering, bawdy reign of Charles II. Shortly after he was put on the throne, he decreed that women could work on the stage; among his many mistresses was beautiful and talented actress Nell Gwyn, who was supposedly raised in a brothel. It was racy, rowdy world, and even as they packed houses, the women who made their living there were insulted and even condemned by the judgements of society. A complete break with tradition, the unprecedented actresses of the Restoration became a symbol for the license and purported immorality of the era, cementing a long-running presumption of a relationship between promiscuity, prostitution, and women in the theater. Betty Boutell, a Restoration-era actress that Pullen covers in her book, was once referred to in verse as a woman “whom all the Town fucks.” This association persisted for centuries; London’s Covent Garden was traditionally the center of both the theater and the sex trade, a place where it was understood that women could be bought and sold. In Paris, too, the overlap between the theater and the demi-monde was significant. William Hogarth’s 1738 print, Strolling Actresses Dressing in a Barn, testifies to the public’s perception of actresses as licentious and sexually available.
As is so often the case with famous women, sorting the truth from the historical slander is complicated. Traditionally, actresses—like actors—came from the working class, and as such weren’t afforded the same cultural protections as middle or upper class women. Pullen notes that during the Restoration, men could pay a little extra with their ticket to go backstage, where they might find actresses changing clothing, socializing, even eating and drinking. “Men could go back and interact with them. They could watch them, they could talk to them, they could share oranges with them,” said Pullen. “Men are paying for this sort of extra access to go backstage. How are women ever supposed to be able to be in a position to say no?” Backstage access would maintain a sexualized mystique, with 19th century Impressionist Edgar Degas and Post-Impressionist Henri Toulouse-Lautrec both painted behind the scenes, offering tantalizing glimpses of entertainers off stage.
The social safety net is a relatively recent invention, and for much of western history, there were very few jobs available to women and most of them paid poorly and left them just as exposed, if not more, than the stage. “The options for women—and I’m talking historically—were so limited that if you’re going to be sexually exploited, wouldn’t it be better to be sexually exploited by a wealthy man and have a career on the stage?” said Pullen. “I’m not talking about now, when women have a lot of other options, but if we’re looking at 1714, it’s not surprising that there has been this long-term link.” In Painted Love: Prostitution in French Art of the Impressionist Era, Hollis Clayson writes of how in the 19th century, millinery was conflated with prostitution and women who worked in the industry were presumed to be available for purchase.
Over time, actresses began laying claim to their own artistry. In the late 18th century, Sarah Siddons would become famous and acclaimed for her tragic roles, particularly her Lady MacBeth. Also famous for her Shakespearean roles in the late 19th century was Ellen Terry and, of course, there was Sarah Bernhardt. When she died in 1923, the L.A. Times quoted her friend, producer George Tyler: “To my mind she is the greatest world figure who has died since Roosevelt. I can recall no other woman so widely known who has passed since Queen Victoria.”
Siddons was portrayed by Joshua Reynolds in Mrs. Siddons as the Tragic Muse, affording her the almost pointedly respectful “Mrs.” and aligning her with the height of classical artistic tradition. John Singer Sargent painted Terry in 1889, similarly depicting as engaged in her craft. And yet, there was still a frisson around their fame. Bernhardt, for instance, is often positioned as a celebrity as much as an artist.
At the dawn of Hollywood, in the late 1910s and first years of the 1920s, the narrative seems to have mutated. Actresses in the late 17th and 18th centuries, Pullen explained, were “figures of suspicion”—“they’re grasping, they’re scheming, they’re working their wiles, they’re getting above their station.” As far as society was concerned, whether they even had a moral compass was anybody’s guess. But, to harken back to Hogarth, stories told about early Hollywood bear a closer resemblance his series Harlot’s Progress, depicting a young country girl who arrives in London and is promptly snatched up by a predatory bawd who throws her into a life of prostitution.
“Anxiety about demands that women exchange sex for work begin with the beginning of the industry’s settlement in Los Angeles,” explained Hilary Hallett, a professor at Columbia University and author of Go West Young Women! The Rise of Early Hollywood, in a discussion with Jezebel. “They really helped define this idea of Hollywood as it first emerges, right after World War I in the 1920s.”
A flood of hopeful young women into a fledgling business certainly presented an environment where bad actors could operate. In her book, Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood, Cari Beauchamp notes that the Central Casting Corporation was created in part to help channel those who wanted to get into the film business as extras, as it was alarmingly easy to pose as somebody with power for nefarious purposes: “One man who admitted to placing ads in the local papers for a ‘casting call’ to be held in his room at the [Biltmore] hotel didn’t know if he was more surprised that the ad ‘brought a deluge of replies’ or at the young girls’ inability ‘to differentiate between the legitimate ‘calls’ and the illegitimate snares,’” she recounts. In a discussion over the phone, Beauchamp said she had no doubt there was harassment in the early industry.
What’s ironic is that, in many ways, the dawn of the California movie industry offered more opportunities for women than you might assume. “Lots of women start relocating to Los Angeles to look for work in the early movie industry, because it was publicized as an almost gold rush business that had lots of opportunities particularly for women, not just as actors but as writers, directors, producers, journalists reporting on the industry,” explained Hallett. With that influx came cultural anxiety, which found a flashpoint in early scandals like the highly controversial trial of Fatty Arbuckle, accused of raping and crushing to death a young woman at a boozy party in 1921. But the image of Hollywood as Sodom and Gomorrah was heavily influenced by broader worries about the fact that all over the country, women were striking out on their own—moving to cities, entering new workplaces, and steadily accumulating more independence.
“Warnings about this thing called the casting couch start out right away, but in these earlier years, they also obscure the fact that women are actually working in the industry successfully in all kinds of ways,” explained Hallett.
And yet, Hallett hasn’t actually encountered much use of the specific term “casting couch,” the origin of which is very murky. It appears in Linda Williams’ 1989 study of pornography, Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible,” which cites the existence of a 1924 stag film, The Casting Couch. If that rings bells, it maybe be due to Feud and decades of rumors that Joan Crawford appeared in a softcore movie by that name, which nobody has ever managed to prove conclusively. (Provenance for early blue movies is a tricky thing, so the year of its production is uncertain.) This Atlantic history records several instances from the ’20s and ’30s; a recent Slate piece explains that, “The term casting couch first appeared in Variety on Nov. 24, 1937, in a story poking fun at a Chicago Tribune reporter for misusing it because he wasn’t cool enough to already know what it meant.” In a piece at the Atlantic tracing the history of the term, Ben Zimmer says that the term was often associated with Broadway in the 1930s, and particularly with the Shuberts, the powerful family of producers who helped create New York’s theater scene at the dawn of the 1900s. The earliest use offered as an example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1948, in H.L. Mencken’s American Language: Supplement Two, describing it as “the divan in a casting-director’s office,” a straightforward but knowing description.
The timing of the uptick probably isn’t an accident, as it coincides with the height of the mighty studio system and the consolidation of incredible amounts of power around key men in the industry. “In the 1920, there were a hundred filmmaking companies listed in the Los Angeles phone book. By ’33, we’re down to seven,” Beauchamp told me. “Once you’re down to seven, you’ve got seven kings,” each of which with his own fiefdom, tightly controlled with everything from dental work to scandals handled in-house. You couldn’t have designed a better system to facilitate the exploitation of vulnerable young women. At Variety, Thelma Adams outlines many of the stories, from Hitchcock’s treatment of Tippi Hedren to Louis B. Mayer. Head of Columbia Harry Cohn’s behavior was seemingly so flagrant that it gets a mention in his biography on TCM.com, not a source particularly known for its muckraking: “Maintaining a casting couch was one of many unpleasant attributes that Cohn had cultivated during his rule at Columbia.”
Some of the specifics of Hollywood’s seamier side didn’t seep out until the big celebrity memoir boom times of the 1970s and ’80s, when tell-alls became hugely popular. (Shirley Temple said in her 1988 autobiography that a producer had exposed himself to her when she was 12, for instance.) But the notion was clearly circulating in the popular consciousness in the 1940s and ’50s. Slate did a piece on this 1965 expose by the British movie magazine Picturegoer, which at least documented the practice. But the layout for the piece was outright sexy. It reflects an almost fetish-like dimension to the trope. One of the things that turned up in my search was a 1963 article from the downmarket Playboy competitor Jem, “A New Look at the Old Casting Couch,” with opens with a large rear view of a faceless naked woman. Even today, it remains a trope in pornography.
The notion of the casting couch is long on insinuations and short on specifics. Much like the tales of Weinstein—scattered across thousands of blog comments over the years, such that celebrity gossip followers including teenagers and housewives and office workers far from California knew something was up, but Hollywood maintained its semi-plausible deniability. It’s a slippery, toxic concept that does a lot of work, culturally, simultaneously acknowledging an abusive dynamic and reframing that dynamic to focus on the actions of women subjected to it rather than its perpetrators.
At the same time, by its very existence in our bag of Hollywood tropes, it casts doubt on the talents of successful actresses. George Clooney told the Daily Beast that, “I’ve heard rumors, and the rumors in general started back in the ’90s, and they were that certain actresses had slept with Harvey to get a role. It seemed like a way to smear the actresses and demean them by saying that they didn’t get the jobs based on their talent, so I took those rumors with a grain of salt.” A lot of people surely took those rumors and enthusiastically consumed them unsalted.
Throughout the long history of women in Western theater, smutty innuendos have been used to undermine their status as artists. The casting couch—both as idea and practice—undermines actresses as creative figures in their own right, suggesting that their only route to success is through their bodies, not their hard work or artistic ability.
Lurking in the old coverage of the phenomenon, too, is a warning. Over the decades, the casting couch is often acknowledged, but framed as a thing of the past. The OED cites a 1963 article in the Sunday Express, claiming that, “In the old days..the only way anyone got anywhere in this business was by way of the casting couch.” A particularly incredible paragraph comes courtesy the February 1941 issue of the fan magazine Modern Screen.
The day of the “Casting Couch”—when a girl had to exercise her libido instead of her talent for a job—is almost dead. The much-publicized and traditional Hollywood orgy died that evening when Fatty Arbuckle became involved in the community’s most colossal scandal which meant the end of Virginia Rapp. Today Hollywood parties are pretty dully and business-like affairs, where Darryl Zanuck is talking about himself, and boring Joe Pasternak would like to talk about himself, and where Jack Benny won’t talk at all for fear of losing a gag to Bob Hope and Ken Murray who are also silent.
In fact, Zanuck’s name does crop up in talk of casting couch practices, and in a piece just days ago at the Daily Mail, Joan Collins alleges that she was warned about him by Marilyn Monroe herself and that he did indeed try it. And this Modern Screen article appeared just four years after the event that would become the subject of a shocking court case, discussed in the documentary Girl 27, in which 20-year-old Patricia Douglas alleged that she was raped by an MGM sales rep at a boozy studio party where she and other young women were basically offered up like a buffet. Her legal efforts were ultimately stymied by the fact that Hollywood was essentially a company town.
And for all we flatter ourselves more advanced than the judgmental prudes of the past, a disproportionately sexualized way of thinking about actresses persists. “I would say that female actors, their bodies and their sexualities remain one of, if not the most scrutinized areas of their public and professional life, in a way that is not true for men and in a way that stretches back and continues to leave us with the assumptions that women are sexually available. That if you’re on stage or on screen, available for the gaze of the audience or the producers, then you are sexually available as well,” said Pullen.
As a trope, the casting couch has often served as a way to push sexual harassment onto the past, to wipe the record clean, but it ultimately helped to preserve the status quo. Now is the time to name these practices for what they are—sexual harassment and abuse of power—and root them out.
A garbled phrase in the second paragraph of this story has been corrected for clarity.