The Dark History of Abuse in Hollywood

BY ISABELLA LORD

Disgraced producer Harvey Weinstein, responsible for sexual harassment allegations going back decades. (Emily Berl for the New York Times).

When the New York Times first broke the Harvey Weinstein scandal early last month, The Weinstein Company initially responded by threatening to file a lawsuit. It wasn’t until the accusations became increasingly frequent and so undeniable that the movie mogul was finally fired from his own studio. If the story hadn’t spread so rapidly, The Weinstein Company could have easily protected him, as they had for years. However, there was nothing they could do to stop it from making headlines. In the modern age of social media, large companies can attempt to cover up stories, but it isn’t likely to do any good. Stories spread quickly and demand more attention than ever before.

Amy Berg faced horrible threats from the Screen Actors Guild after releasing her documentary “Open Secret” in 2015. Her documentary detailed the dark, meticulous system in place allowing predators to take advantage of vulnerable young actors throughout their career. She called to attention the lawyers that protect the producers, how victims are silenced, and the bribes involved. Berg never retracted any of her statements, despite the threats, and the movie became a sensation. The ability to successfully share these stories is a recent phenomenon which has the potential to dismantle this ugly system of abuse and power.

The fall of Harvey Weinstein and the success of Berg’s documentary represents a serious change in the way powerful people are held accountable. Hollywood’s historical system of abuse is now under attack, thanks to social media and an overall shift in public attitudes toward sexual assault victims. Louis C.K., Ben Affleck, and Kevin Spacey are among the many entertainers now being scrutinized because of sexual assault claims. All these revelations started with the uncovery of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, but this was a story America has been waiting to hear for years. It is common knowledge that wealthy Americans wield considerable power because of their elevated positions, but most either turn a blind eye or feel powerless against it. Long before Weinstein, people knew the life of actors and actresses were dangerous and demoralizing behind the silver screen. Countless entertainers have suffered drug addiction, committed suicide, or simply gone insane. What people may not realize is how this system of abuse targets child actors, who are far more vulnerable. Memoirs of famous entertainers such as Corey Feldman, Alison Arngrim, and Shirley Temple turned the urban legend of the manipulative casting couch into widespread knowledge.

One of the most famous accounts of Hollywood abuse was of Judy Garland, who was forced on amphetamines to stay awake for long rehearsals then given barbiturates to sleep, all before she was 16. By the time she started working on the Wizard of Oz, she had been molested, causing her to be shunned by several costars and producers. Worst of all, she was not defended by her mother, Ethel, who pushed her into the movie business, forcing her to diet and condoning her use of drugs. Not only is the abuse itself terrible, but her family’s willingness to sacrifice her well-being for fame.

Jeff Herman, a renowned lawyer who specializes in high-profile sexual assault cases, stated, “You’ve got an industry where kids are working, which doesn’t really happen anywhere else. You have kids who want to be movie stars looking for their breaks, their parents who are pushing them into these professions – and they’re all at the mercy of these producers and of these directors.” He continues,”So what happens is there’s an imbalance of power, these kids become particularly vulnerable to being exploited.”

Hollywood is unique in its ability to not only employ children, but to put children in very strenuous environments that are not acceptable in any other profession. Child actors have ridiculous hours, and are often exposed to drugs and sex at a very young age. These young children are taught how important their appearance is, and how their success and value as an actor depends on it. These children feel an immense pressure to be beautiful, so they are unsure how to respond to the compliments they get from their superiors. The life of a child actor creates an environment that is corrosive to their self-esteem, in a time that it’s needed most. Often, it is the parents who essentially sell their children over to producers by signing contracts they hardly understand. In her diary, Allison Angrim wrote that parents of child stars are knowingly “prostituting” their children. In 1942, Judy Garland was persuaded to have an abortion by MGM officials. Though most people knew about the abuse Judy Garland suffered, along with many other actresses, what could anyone have done about it? This was before articles could be shared on Twitter, before a person’s reputation could be ruined in a matter of hours.

America is becoming less permissive of this abuse, and beginning to realize it has the power to hold people accountable. Hollywood’s first real scandal was in 1921 when silent filmmaker Roscoe Arbuckle murdered actress Virginia Rapp. This was one of the few early cases in which a director faced direct public criticisms for one of his crimes. Though many people were suspicious of Arbuckle, he had the money to win his case. His sentence was reduced to manslaughter, and he was acquitted after three trials. Plenty of directors and producers continue to make films after trials for sexual assault, including Roman Polanski. It is hard to comprehend how this abuse was permitted for so long. It is hard to believe that there was no system in place to protect children from such grotesque acts. The now-evident truth is that the system functioned to protect the abusers themselves.

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