Just as the sordid but ongoing saga of filmmaker and convicted pedophile Roman Polanski fades once again from the headlines, stories of child abuse in Hollywood have erupted again, with an unprecedented frequency. Of course, if you don’t know where to look for this sort of news, you might never have heard a thing.
In late November, a composer who had won awards for his work on Sesame Street was charged with coercing a child “to engage in sexually explicit conduct” in addition to charges of producing and distributing child porn. In the same month, it was revealed that a registered sex offender was working as a casting agent, where he’s placed young actors in family-oriented films like the Bad News Bears remake, School Of Rock, Cheaper By The Dozen 2 and an upcoming Three Stooges film, in addition to last summer’s Super 8. The casting agent had kidnapped and assaulted an 8-year-old boy in Seattle 15 years ago, according to a story in the Los Angeles Times.
And in December a Hollywood manager who represented child actors was charged with sexually abusing a former client, who alleged that the abuse had begun when he was just 12, and that the man had told him that it was a “common practice” in the industry, and that if he told anyone it would ruin his career. The manager had placed young actors on TV shows like iCarly and films like the just released Muppet Movie. Prior to opening his management company, it was reported, he had performed in costume at children’s birthday parties.
While these stories were reported on Fox News, the New York Times was suspiciously silent on them all, despite their avid reporting on clerical sex abuse and the recent scandal involving Penn State sports coach Jerry Sandusky. This, sadly, would hardly be surprising, but it shows a curious disinterest in what turns out to be a story with deep and troubling resonance.
Further reporting on the three stories led to quotes from people like Paula Dorn of the BizParentz Foundation, a non-profit support group for families with children in the entertainment business, who said, “the problem is more pervasive than people want to believe.” Paul Peterson, a former child actor on The Donna Reed Show over four decades ago said that the situation “is worse today than it was in the ‘30s, and there was a lot of dirty stuff going on then.”
Alison Arngrim, who starred as Nellie Oleson on the ‘70s hit series Little House on the Prairie, is now a board member and spokeswoman for Protect, an organization that works to protect children from abuse. She explained to Fox News that “if a child actor is being sexually abused by someone on the show, is the family, agents or managers – the people who are getting money out of this – going to say, ‘OK, let’s press charges?’ No, because it’s going to bring the whole show to a grinding halt, and stop all the checks. So, the pressure is there is not to say anything.”
This paints a dismal picture of Hollywood for outsiders, but rings familiar bells for those of us who cover the industry. As child stars, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland were given amphetamines to help them keep up with hectic production schedules on their hit MGM films, which began a string of substance addictions that plagued Garland for the rest of her increasingly sad life. Then there’s screen legend Errol Flynn, whose interest in underage girls led to a 1943 trial for statutory rape, where his acquittal perversely burnished his reputation as – the phrase can only be uttered with savage irony – a “ladies man.”
More than any other business, Hollywood is a place where talent, youth and beauty are exploited, with a premium paid for all three. It’s also an industry that’s learned to shield itself from criticism by celebrating its venal and amoral customs with skilful self-parody, so that proud mea culpas from selfish sociopaths have somehow shifted the focus from actual predators and criminals thriving in the background.
Parents’ groups have been demanding more family-friendly fare from Hollywood for years, but a glance at the credits of the three men at the centre of the recent scandals suggests that what goes on the screen is almost irrelevant, and that child abuse actually thrives where children have roles. Resistant, as ever, to what would be by necessity a profound change, Hollywood may have actually gone past the point of redemption.