Stardom, the American Dream, overbearing stage mothers and pedophiles: being a child in Hollywood
When the Lumière brothers did their first presentation of a new invention on December 28th 1895, they were not only giving birth to cinema, but also to the documentary genre. The first very short movies exhibited to ecstatic audiences were documentaries — and the documentaries are today the best kind of movies to showcase the hard truth about the movie world itself.
The latest scandal in the film world involves mogul Harvey Weinstein and dozens of women in the industry who accuse him of sexual harassment. It’s great that we are talking about this issue, and the predators are being exposed. But sexual harassment is nothing new in Hollywood, and neither is pedophilia. And exposing pedophiles is also nothing new. The industry itself has already exposed many cases. We’ll be talking specifically about Amy Berg’s documentary on pedophilia, “An Open Secret”, released in 2014.
In a sense, harassment and pedophilia are created by the same ingredients: the Star System, the American Dream and the belief that everybody is replaceable and disposable in Hollywood. Let’s see how everything comes together to form something truly horrendous, that should not happen in the biggest Dream Machine of the world.
The American Dream
Everybody wants to be at the movies. The glamour life of film stars was one of the supporting pillars of the Studio System, and with time it was incorporated in the American Way of Life as part of the American Dream. With geopolitical changes and globalization, the American Way of Life spread, and now we can find everywhere people with the same American Dream: to be famous.
Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s “Salaam Cinema” (1995, sometimes called “Hello Cinema”) showcases this perfectly: in the film, the Iranian director puts an ad in a newspaper looking for actors for his next film. Thousands of people go to the audition, everyone believing they have what it takes to be a film star. In Iran — a country that had just been on war. That’s how far the American Dream reaches.
Young stars and overbearing stage mothers
The silent film era was full of child actors, but the most famous of them all is probably Jackie Coogan. After making a huge impression alongside Charles Chaplin in “The Kid” (1921), Jackie made many more movies and had his face all over a series of merchandising products. In 1935, when Jackie turned 21, he bitterly discovered that his mother and stepfather had spent nearly everything from the almost four million dollars he had earned in the movie business. There is no report that Jackie Coogan was ever sexually assaulted, but he was the first case showing that child actors, more than any others, needed protection.
At the same time, superstar Shirley Temple was being harassed by producer Arthur Freed. Ginger Rogers was being stalked by studio executives. Judy Garland was being put in restrictive diets in order to remain slim. Jean Simmons was being pursued by mogul Howard Hughes, and when she rejected him, she was told she’d never work again in a movie. Natalie Wood, who started acting as a child star, was raped in her teen years by a fellow actor — all evidences point out to Kirk Douglas. Old Hollywood was full of disgusting men. And also full of fixers, who arranged marriages and abortions for actresses who, while freely expressing their sexualities, got pregnant out of wedlock.
Some people would ask: where were these kids’ and teens’ mothers? Well, some of them were as invested in a film career as their kids — or even more.
The overbearing stage mother is a common trope. Take, for instance, 1930s bombshell Jean Harlow. She debuted in film in 1928, when she was only 17, and took her mother’s real name as her stage name. In a way, the girl Harlean Carpenter was fulfilling her mama Jean’s unfulfilled dreams of stardom. In 1937, a combination of factors, like Jean’s failing kidneys due to scarlet fever and mama Jean’s love for Christian Science and denial of modern medicine, took Jean Harlow to the grave at the tender age of 26. Jean was probably sexually harassed by her stepfather when she was 16 and, throughout most of her career, was marketed as a sexy bombshell and nothing more.
Mama Jean was an overbearing stage mother, as is the mother of young actress Ariel Winter, from Modern Family. Yes, the overbearing stage mother still exists, and may be an accomplice in the pedophilia and harassment scandals if she is willing to accept anything so her child will rise to fame. But there is still more to the subject, and making all mothers of child actors guilty is not an acceptable solution, at all.
Hollywood: they worship everything and they value nothing
The movie business is much bigger than we are used to think. There are more than actors, directors, screenwriters, composers. There are publicists and reporters. There are talent hunters and casting personnel. There are the people who work in the crafts. And, yes, those people are also potential abusers to any newcomer.
Why don’t victims of sexual harassment tell the truth? Because a lot of reasons. As children and teens, they’re afraid that they will be forbidden to work in the field again — some of them genuinely like doing this, while others just have done this all their lives. Many child stars can’t see themselves out of show business. It’s the only world many of them know.
Many children, teens and adults are scared of speaking up because the film world is, after all, a small world. People know each other. The contact web is thin and full of connections. It’s not necessary to rise against a mogul or a superstar to have your career ruined: a complaint about a casting agent or publicist is enough for someone to never work again in Hollywood.
An Open Secret
One of the boys interviewed says that all children want to be actors, because many of their heroes are — and he is true. This is part of the American Dream, as we exposed above. I bet you knew at least one person who wanted to be an actor or actress as a child, because of the glamour. Maybe this was YOUR childhood dream. But, in Hollywood, childhood dreams have a huge price.
The documentary “An Open Secret” presents lots of boys whose childhood dream was to make it big in the entertainment industry — and who were harassed or assaulted once they got there.
When the internet era came, parents told that they were surprised to find out that their children’s headshots were being sold on eBay for spectacular prices — and being sold by people close to them, people who were supposed to protect them. This was just the tip of the iceberg. In 2011, an investigation finally started exposing the pedophiles in Hollywood.
The kids’ mental health was shattered after the abuse. They didn’t know who to tell, or who to blame. Some considered suicide, others became addicted to drugs and alcohol. One of them has his story told by his parents — because he is already gone. All the boys that appear in the movie don’t work in the entertainment area anymore, and all had their last names are hidden from the public — although a quick internet search can break their privacy. But what about all the child actors who remained in the industry? Did the ones who had problems as adults, like Macaulay Culkin, Drew Barrymore and Lindsay Lohan, suffer from sexual harassment? We don’t know about them, but former child star Corey Haim, who died in 2010 at only 38, sure did. He wasn’t the first victim, not the last. Corey wasn’t an exception: he was a rule in Hollywood.
And the documentary shows that it doesn’t happen only in Hollywood. Abuse and pedophilia are common practices in the music industry, on television, and even on media startups, like DEN (Digital Entertainment Network), the one mentioned in the documentary that promised to “revolutionize entertainment”.
The fact that the documentary presents only boys who accuse men of sexual harassment may look odd, and even inappropriate to be considered together with the current allegations of actresses against producers. The most conservatives may even consider those men “depraved”, because their behavior was not only improper, but homosexual. But both pedophilia — being the victims boys or girls — and sexual assault have one thing in common: they’re all about power. They’re about using this power in order to get sex — and using threatens and violence in order to not have the sexual favors denied.
Of course, “An Open Secret” presented an inconvenient truth to the public, and suffered because of it. Amy Berg had a difficult time finding a distributor — nobody wanted to put the documentary in circulation. After all, what is not seen does not make any impact. SAG-AFTRA, whose co-founder and chief of the Young Performer Committee, Michael Harrah, was exposed in the documentary, tried to sue Amy Berg.
“An Open Secret” should have started a revolution in the industry, but cases of pedophilia are still happening: young actor Finn Wolfhard, from “Stranger Things” and “It”, worked with an agent accused of sexual harassment. Finn decided to leave his agent so he wouldn’t become the next victim.
Bob Villard. Michael Harrah. Brock Pierce. Brian Peck. Marty Weiss. Marc Collins-Rector. Those abusers were exposed in 2014. They are on the loose. Let’s not forget their names, and most important: let’s not forget their victims. And let’s not forget that the combination of ingredients that create sexual predators can be undone with one thing: cultural change.