My story with James Toback begins like most new actresses’: I was invited to attend the premiere of a star-studded movie in New York. I am then introduced to Toback, a friend of the film’s director, whom I know well. While sitting at the director’s table, socializing and enjoying the event, I cannot help but notice Toback lumbering over to me, as he is a very large man—about 6 feet tall and at least 300 pounds. He stands very close to me—so close, in fact, that every time he speaks specks of his saliva land on some part of my body.
He launches into an explanation of his close relationship with the film’s director. He begins to sing the praises of the movie, which, at the time, I thought was interesting because the movie was a total dud. Only later did I realize that his praise was rooted in the shared fetish that he and this director had toward the degradation of women.
A litany of name-dropping follows. He boasts in soliloquy, hailing the greatness of his own body of work—Two Girls and a Guy, Black and White, When Will I Be Loved—all of which are alien to me because he’s over forty years my senior and I am the ripe age of 24. He proceeds to tell me that since I am so close with his director-friend, he would help me with my career.
He tells me how he is casting for a new project and thinks I am just right for one of the roles. I give him my number. It sounds like a good prospect for me and, being that I am too young to be familiar with his work, I figure he’s the “real deal” because of the other heavy hitters I see him interacting with all night.
He starts calling me immediately and often, sounding very high or inebriated—sometimes so much so that I can’t even understand him. He would always start the conversations off expressing how he wanted to help me, accompanied little doses of flattery. Then he would swiftly steer the conversation to more bragging about his early years in Hollywood, and how he had dated and slept with many of the top-level actresses of his time.
Listen to two of the voicemails that James Toback left me:
Toback insists I send him hard copies of my headshot, resume, and reel. He claims that he just needs them for his records while he tries to figure out which role would best suit me, even though he had already promised me a role in his upcoming film. He tells me I need to trust him and says that I need to come to New York to see him as soon as I can.
I had some scheduled meetings in New York a couple of weeks later and was planning on spending a nice chunk of time in the city anyway, so I tell Toback the dates and ask if there are any sides or a script he could get to me or my manager. He tells me that he doesn’t do anything electronically and he would have to give it to me in person.
Soon after I arrive, he calls and asks to see me within the half-hour. I tell him I’m much too busy and that I need to get settled first. He persists, but I tell him I am just not available. My gut tells me something is off by the intensity and pressure in his voice, but I want to be cast and decide to just keep going. Second night it’s the same ritual: a phone call, maybe around 8 p.m. or so, emphatically asking me to see him within the half-hour. We agree to meet at the Harvard Club, as he is a proud alumnus—which only leads to more talk of his “exceptional” qualities throughout our meeting.
We sit down inside and he proceeds to get completely hammered. I ask him if he has the sides that we are meeting about or a script I can read—both of which were promised to me upon meeting him and the entire reason for me being there. He has neither, but says that they are at his place and we can go get them after our meeting. This obviously makes me uptight, as I try not to be in drunk, older, strange men’s homes alone, no matter who they are. “Well, maybe I can go with you and you can run them down to me,” I say. He doesn’t really give me a straight answer, but I figure I’ll insist on it when we arrive.
Toback calls for a car. A black Lincoln Town Car arrives. We get in and the doors lock.
I immediately feel uncomfortable. We start to head to his place and he’s pretty drunk. His demeanor suddenly shifts and he starts to just go off, venting about his hatred of Hollywood and all the people who have fucked him over or dismissed him. He tells me he’s trying to lose weight so that right before he dies, he can execute a mass shooting of everyone on his “black list”; how he would love to “die running and shooting everyone he hates until his kneecaps give.” At the same time, he’s rubbing my leg and moving his hand up my dress. I push his hand away, and he continues his rant.
He again attempts to try to get to my crotch. I am now shoving his hand away and moving as far as I can to the other side of the seat. I’m both terrified and disgusted, and all I can think about is how to politely get out of this car without the drunk guy who’s talking about gunning people down hurting me. We finally get to his place and I tell him, “I’m very car sick and can’t get out.” He argues, telling me, “I’ll be OK, just come up, have some tea,” and so on. I apologize and say there’s no way, that I need to go home, and that I promise we’ll meet the next day. He appears satisfied with that and gives some extra money to the driver to take me home.
In the months that follow, he frequently calls and leaves drunken-sounding rants on my voicemail—though he never brings up that role or those sides again. Come to think of it, I never saw a James Toback film get made either, another of his many promises, but by that time I was at peace with never allowing myself to be in close proximity to that man ever again.
I have always carried a fair amount of shame for not having thicker skin in these types of scenarios; that maybe I’m just not “cut out for the business.” I now realize that wasn’t shame at all but emotional pain from feeling forced to participate in this industry where, if I don’t accept this kind of abusive treatment, I will never “make it.”
I’ve never told this story—not even to my closest friends—as I felt that nothing could be done and any opinions on it would only make me feel worse. I just chalked it up to yet another powerful man in Hollywood behaving badly while promising the moon and the stars (which, in truth, is a fairly large number) and that I was destined to move on through the sharks’ waters, even if they took a couple bites out of me along the way.
The decision to remain anonymous in this piece is because I am concerned about Toback’s mental state, and possible retaliation. But it feels very liberating to be able to finally have a voice, community, and support to realize what all those unresolved feelings I have felt for so many years represent. It’s almost as if we had all been brainwashed to play along; the collective mantra of chauvinist, power-tripping men saying, “Now be a good girl or else.”
Suddenly, the fog has lifted and things have become so much clearer for myself and many others.