Photography Getty Images/Tim Boxer

harvey weinstein’s former personal assistant once wrote a play about an abusive boss

It’s a revealing portrait of abuse of power and fear.

by Alice Newell-Hanson
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13 October 2017, 10:45pm

Photography Getty Images/Tim Boxer

The 2008 play Assistance came with the standard disclaimer stating that it was a work of fiction. But reviewers immediately pointed out the parallels between the (then sort of comically) terrorized workplace it depicts and the Weinstein Company, where the play's writer and director Leslye Headland once worked. Before writing Assistance, Headland worked at Weinstein Company and Miramax for six years, and was Harvey Weinstein's personal assistant for "about a year."

The comedy is set in a fictional company called the Weisinger Company run by a tyrannical, irascible boss called Daniel Weisinger. There was a large "W" affixed to the wall of the office set when the play ran off-Broadway in 2012 (the Weinstein Company logo is an abstract "W").

"Just try watching a play in which one downtrodden assistant is shoved out of a gypsy cab — and then run over by the same cab — and not think of the notoriously temperamental Weinstein," wrote Entertainment Weekly. The Hollywood Reporter called the play a "reluctant roman à clef."

Headland herself said that the play was "more about the assistants than the boss," and that "it's all stuff that I made up." But the traces of Weinstein in Weisinger are clear. It only takes two new letters and a little rearranging to make "Weinstein" and "Weisinger." Weinstein has spoken freely of having a quick temper like Weisinger's. And it's easy to see Weinstein in the impression of Weisinger his employees revel in: he is caricatured as being like an "overweight cat."

"Weinstein employees past and present have been checking out the play in previews and say the M.O. is vintage Harvey," said THR in 2012.

Similarly, the culture of degradation and fear the play depicts echoes the culture that is now being described by the former Weinstein employees accusing Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment and assault.

Notably, the play opens with two male employees discussing a new female assistant that Weisinger has hired and who has been waiting in the company's lobby for the past four hours. "How long do you think she'll last?" asks one character about the "new girl's" employment. There is a clear implication that she she will become one of many "new girls" to fold under the humiliations of the Weisinger Company. (Read an excerpt from the play's script here.)

"There is a toxic environment for women at this company," wrote Lauren O'Connor, a former Weinstein employee, in a memo to several Weinstein executives that she sent while working at the studio. The memo was made public in Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey's explosive New York Times exposé last week. In the same report, O'Connor's then-colleague Emily Nestor accused Weinstein of sexual assault.

The Times discovered that Weinstein had reached settlements with two former assistants who brought claims of sexual harassment, one in 1990 and one in 1998. In The New Yorker report that followed days later, Ronan Farrow reported that "Sixteen former and current executives and assistants at Weinstein's companies told me that they witnessed or had knowledge of unwanted sexual advances and touching at events associated with Weinstein's films and in the workplace."

While Assistance makes no explicit mention of sexual harassment, it's hard not to wonder why there is a stream of "new girls" running through the fictional office.

Time and time again, former Weinstein employees and actresses have explained their silence until now by pointing out their powerlessness in the face of Weinstein. O'Connor wrote in her memo, "I am a 28 year old woman trying to make a living and a career. Harvey Weinstein is a 64 year old, world famous man and this is his company. The balance of power is me: 0, Harvey Weinstein: 10."

When Headland wrote the play, in 2008 or not long before, Twitter was in its early years. The online call-out culture that is now helping Weinstein's accusers come forward safely did not exist. Twitter had only introduced the hashtag in the summer of 2007, and the platform was not yet being used as a tool for social justice. It was a different time and there were fewer safe channels for reporting abuse.

The play's existence though, and the agreement within the industry that it was a thinly veiled representation of the Weinstein Company, is a clear signal that Hollywood was well aware of Weinstein's volatile and emotionally abusive personality.

The weaponized power imbalance that O'Connor described is exactly what enabled Weinstein to abuse his employees and actresses in silence. And it's everywhere in Assistance. As Charles Isherwood of The New York Times summarized, the play is "about the strains of toiling for an employer who has the ability to make and destroy careers and the emotional maturity of a pre-adolescent."

Or, in the words of THR, "Assistance ultimately is about the extent to which [the assistants'] ambition will permit career-minded twentysomethings to endure the toxicity and humiliation of an abusive environment."

Like Seth MacFarlane's now-notorious 2013 Oscars joke ("Congratulations, you five ladies no longer have to pretend to be attracted to Harvey Weinstein"), the dark comedy of Assistance expresses a darker truth about abuse that wasn't spoken publicly in Hollywood.

Interestingly, Weinstein himself doesn't seem to have been bothered by any parallels between him and Weisinger. Weinstein Company bought the rights to Headland's film The Bachelorette in 2012, four years after the play had debuted in Los Angeles. More than anything, Assistance proves that Weinstein thought he was untouchable.

i-D has reached out to Leslye Headland's agent for comment.