An old friend of mine, B, grew up to be a successful film director. He made some real good family fare, films that are still enjoyed decades later. Nice, clean, wholesome films. He himself was a nice guy, smart, unusually well-educated for the business, happily married too. While chatting one day, B opened up about the legendary casting couch — Hollywood-speak for actors and actresses whose auditions include a little private time spent have sex with someone at the executive level (i.e., someone who has the power to hire you).
The Hollywood sexual exploitation system doesn’t just target females and it isn’t just straight males who offend.
The cliche “casting couch” that actresses have bitched about since the 1930s and 40s has become a Hollywood tradition. Today, many young (and not so young) actors and actresses consider a blow-job or a lay to be the price of fame. Don’t even need a couch anymore. Just tell some naive wannabe that you will make them a star and, if you’re rich and powerful enough in Hollywood, you can get whatever you want, when you want it and where you want it too.
The sexual exploitation system is entrenched in Hollywood. It started with the Studio system, which built mechanisms to protect their inventory of actors from sex scandals by intimidating witnesses and quietly paying off victims. The sexual exploitation system doesn’t just target females, and it isn’t just straight males who offend. Beautiful young actors of all genders are targets for predatory executives of all sexual predilections, straight, gay, lesbian, and bisexual. Child actors aren’t immune either. In his grim tell-all, Coreyography, Corey Feldman said that pedophilia was the biggest problem in the movie industry and spoke about his tragic friend Corey Haim’s claim that his life went off the rails after being raped at age 14.
Ever wonder how some hot unknown got cast in a good movie despite a total lack of acting skills? Sometimes it’s because the casting director just liked their look. But many times, the answer is as simple as a blow-job in exchange for a producer pushing you ahead of the competition. Know how most actors and actresses trying to get ahead end up early on doing a lot of nude scenes? They are lined up like cattle and forced to strip. This is not some dispassionate exercise in aesthetics nor a test of the actor’s ability to “be naked on the screen.” More often, it’s executives who want to linger over your anatomy to decide if they would fuck it and thus if audiences would find that body equally fuckable. And sometimes, if someone liked what they saw, they might hint or outright tell you that sexual favors pave the road to success.
Welcome to Hollywood.
I asked B, “Did you have a casting couch and get actresses to sleep with you?”
“Sure,” he said. “It went with the job.”
“Really. Did you have to force them?”
“No, no,” he assured me, “they volunteered, they knew it would help their careers.”
This only made me wonder if he preyed on their naivete or told them what he had just told me that “it went with the job” and would “help their careers.” Whether or not all his partners were consenting, the reality is that both sides were consenting to non-consent: both of them were accepting sexual exploitation as a Hollywood norm, with each playing their role — his powerful director to her ambitious female ingenue — unquestioningly.
Another friend D, is an established Hollywood producer. He’s close to my age, and tight-lipped about his conquests. Still, now and then, he lets some revealing information slip — like how he plowed his way through all the prettiest actresses he could, in his life ambition to, as he put it, “make as much money as possible and fuck as many beautiful women as possible.” I’ve got no problem with him setting those very American goals for himself, and I know he probably treated the women nicely, but I also know that without his position and privilege, he never would have gotten those actresses’ attention in the first place. Maybe he wasn’t exploitative in overt ways like a Toback or Weinstein, but he gamed the Hollywood system.
Even when people know about the allegations, the history, even the lawsuits, they will turn a blind eye to the actual criminality of their bosses’ behaviors.
For emotionally disturbed predatory people who make successful movies, forcing anyone around them into sex at any time, based on their privilege, is a Hollywood norm. And there are lots of them because it is, by nature, a business that attracts narcissists. Even when people know about the allegations, the history, even the lawsuits, they will turn a blind eye to the actual criminality of their bosses’ behaviors.
When an actor I knew got a job that involved flying to France to work on a Roman Polanski movie, I flat out asked why he was so happy to be working with a known child predator.
“Oh but he’s so talented, a real artist, it’s an honor.” Then he confided, “You know, he showed me a photo of the girl at that age. She was really beautiful. Really beautiful.”
Was this even true, that Polanski had kept a photo of his victim?? Was my friend lying? Was HE a potential predator? It bothered me deeply. I don’t want to hear adult men discuss children as if they were credible sexual objects, no matter how cute they were. “Well that’s awful,” I murmured. “She was a child!”
“I know,” his voice dropped, “it was terrible. Terrible.”
But I could tell he didn’t really think it was terrible. In fact, he probably thought that if only the teenager had cooperated, she might have gotten a tasty role in a Polanski movie and become a star. Because that’s Hollywood too. Right? Anything for a role, for a taste of fame, for the experience of wealth and privilege. After all, would Mariah Carey have ever made it without Tommy Mottola? How many other celebrities grew to fame by agreeing to be sexually exploited? LOTS. And how many stars are hiding traumatic memories of sexual harassment, assault, drugging and humiliating handling behind the Hollywood facade of lavish living? Probably a lot more than we’ll ever know.
You’d think that by the time a star had huge success, they might develop some immunity. Some do, and insist on contracts that forbid nudity, for example, but by the time you get to the top, it’s just as likely that you’ve become trained to the system, weary, jaded and ready to do whatever it takes to get a role without a second thought.
An actor friend who worked on a Scorcese movie once told me about an A-list beauty dropping to her knees and offering the director a blow-job in front of other people to beg for a part in his project. My friend said Scorcese turned down her sex services but worked with her anyway, possibly because her willingness to abase herself certainly proved she was REALLY committed to his movie. I guess we’d like to think that tons of directors have the spine Scorcese showed in refusing to take advantage of a system with an established history of sexual exploitation. But for every victim speaking up, you can count on a dozen other predators who are clinging sweatily to their public image right now and praying their names stay out of the news.
I don’t think anyone outside of Hollywood (this includes me) can understand how deeply rooted the culture is, from sexual misbehaviors, random promiscuities, malicious gossip, and exploitation to financial screw-jobs that make Wall Street bankers look like schoolboys. It has always been a “money talks, bullshit talks too” kind of world. Under the beautiful faces and chic clothes at Academy Awards ceremonies lie an average bunch of rich people accustomed to sheltered privilege, outrageous duplicity, and corrupt ambitions. For the most part, they tolerate each other’s sins without a peep — the lies, the deceit, the unfairness, the sexual misdemeanors and crimes, and the sexism. It’s a Hollywood thing. We wouldn’t understand. Watch Robert Altman’s classic, “The Player,” for a movie so steeped in Hollywood nihilism that even murder can’t hurt a privileged executive’s public image.
If we looked to the glorious Hollywood past for some comfort, we wouldn’t find it there either. It was just as big a swamp of immature idiots compulsively gaming sexual exploitation like a weekend gambler at a One-Armed Bandit. Forget the biggest sex offenders, like Fatty Arbuckle (who may or may not have been guilty of killing a woman at a consensual orgy), or Charlie Chaplin, known for sex sprees with underage girls. It doesn’t begin or stop there. Marlene Dietrich complained of sexual exploitation. No one really listened and she withdrew from the business. Bette Davis complained about misogyny. Hollywood portrayed her as impossible to work with. Did you know esteemed director Alfred Hitchcock thought that emotionally torturing actresses, nearly to a point of emotional breakdown, was a secret of his “craft”? Not very crafty, Alfred. The trick is finding women who can act tortured on screen without having to subject them to inhumane treatment. It’s called ACTING. Oh yeah, and Tippi Hedren (his favorite torture toy), says that Hitchcock sexually assaulted her.
And that too is Hollywood. It’s cruel and unfair. It’s an emotional roller-coaster for everyone involved. It’s a place where most hard-working actors and crew have to navigate land-mines every day of their working lives. It’s a place where the job description requires developing a blind eye to sexual improprieties and focusing uniquely on creating movies that audiences will enjoy.
It’s a good thing that the world outside Hollywood is beginning to see the film industry for what it is: a safe haven for sexual predators as long as they’re good earners, a secret society with a prevailing assumption that actors and actresses are cattle and commodities to be traded and squeezed until the last bleeding coin drops out.
I hope more victims come forward. You can’t expect people who are successfully gaming the system to turn against it. But through the testimony of those who refuse to accept predation as a norm, perhaps that culture will at long last shine a spotlight on the sickness within and begin to change.