James Toback and Harvey Weinstein are both monsters. But they’re different kinds of monsters.
Harvey Weinstein is a heinous monster, inside and out. James Toback is more of a slimy swamp creature. From his oily beard to his sanctimonious affectation, he’s a self-indulgent creep who uses an avant garde disguise to pressure women into sex. And the danger there is that it works too often and is too easy to excuse in the name of art.
Toback inserts his icky persona in his work, because to Toback, the greatest gift to the audience and particularly to women, is Toback himself. In a 2002 interview with Salon, Toback said “the idea is not to have a separation between my life and my movies.” Unfortunately for all of us, he succeeded. From the rom-com The Pick-Up Artist to the documentary The Big Bang: A Feast of Mind and Matter, Toback’s vile persona is mirrored in his work.
In March of 1989, the satirical magazine Spy published an exposé of Toback’s pattern for picking up women. The dozens of women in the article reported similar behavior: street and elevator stalking, flashing his Director’s Guild of America card and his Harvard Club card, telling them he’s really good at picking up women, then begging when all else fails. He even told one that he is so irresistible to women, a seven-year-old girl lusted after him. Charming.
One of his go-tos was “have you seen my movies?” He’d ask them if they’d seen Exposed, Bugsy and/or The Pick-Up Artist. “I know you think I’m Charles Manson. But trust me, this is how I discovered Nastassja Kinski [star of Exposed].” This was not the only time he compared himself to a psycho while stalking women in Central Park.
The Pick-Up Artist was Hitch for the 1980s, only more outright stalkerish and brimming with angry energy. Robert Downey Jr. stars as an immature ladies man with a knack for getting numbers by stalking women on the street. His character is an obvious stand-in for Toback’s conception of himself. Until, of course, he meets Randy (Molly Ringwald), the one woman who doesn’t succumb to his wiles until 100 minutes later.
The funny part is that we’re not supposed to root for Downey’s philandering. The rules of a rom-com dictate that if there is a man who seems like a womanizing jerk, we boo until he meets the sassy woman who changes him for the better. Then we see that deep down, he was a good guy all along. But given what we know about Toback, that isn’t the case with this movie. Downey is the man to be, from beginning to end.
In 1989, Toback made a documentary ostensibly about life, love, sex and the origins of the universe. The Big Bang: A Feast of Mind and Matter may feature 20 other humans, varying in demographics, giving their views on the above subjects but it’s really a smarmy look at Toback himself. It opens with Toback pitching a movie based on his epiphany of the origins of the universe.
“I was staring at the ocean, the sand, the trees, the mountains, the stars. All of a sudden it occurred to me. I understood. I knew how it all started.” The skeptical producer to whom Toback was pitching asks for clarity as to what “it” is. “The cosmos,” replies Toback. “With the orgasmic explosion of God.”
It makes complete sense that Toback would be the height of spiritual hubris. And of course he makes it about ejaculation. He is reminiscent of Bikram Choudhury, the Bikram Yoga empire founder who sexually assaulted and harassed his female students—a man who fancies himself God, or at least a godlike lover to women.
“I would bring you to the point where you need me so badly you would put a gun to your head,” he told one woman in Spy So that’s … that.
The 20 subjects of the documentary vary in age, gender and ethnicity but the common thread is the explicit talk of sex. In itself, that’s fine. But the men varied in age and, put bluntly, attractiveness. The women, on the other hand, were all young and positioned alluringly (with the exception of the nun). The hot young model was spread on the couch with Toback, the artist in a weirdly dark room, the teenage girl in the loft of her bedroom.
When picking up women by telling them about his movies, Toback told several about his desires to make a film (referring to The Big Bang) showing “how interesting the lives of real women are.” The documentary did not do that. It showcased Toback’s creepy obsession with much younger women. The pick-up line also joins Toback with Joss Whedon on the trash heap of men who claim to be feminist, to love powerful women, to find women’s sexualities alluring from an “artistic” perspective and men who are simply predators themselves.
Like the woman Toback demanded “just touch my nipple and I’ll come.” Because she’s just that powerful.