In its last moments, Amy Berg’s exposé of sexual predators among Hollywood’s management classes offers a curious disclaimer: “The filmmakers acknowledge that this is not a gender based issue,” a title reads, just before the closing credits. “We chose to tell these specific stories, but they are representations of a greater issue that affects both boys and girls.”
What does that mean? Berg’s film gives voice to young men who say that, once they arrived in Hollywood, they were “groomed” by men in positions of power, plied with drugs and the promise of roles, forced to strip for hot-tub parties with producers and investors. One recalls being told, while still in puberty, that the way to catch a girl’s eye was to stick a rolled-up sock in your pants — and then tells us that the man spreading this myth was eager to handle the crotch-padding himself.
Some of these men have served time for this. Some of those convicted still hold positions like their old ones. And all seem shielded, the film implies, by the industry’s reluctance to address the problem. Such reluctance, of course, can harden into active resistance, even disbelief — that disclaimer at the end seems crafted to address complaints, during the film’s production, that Berg was on some crusade against gay Hollywood, that she’s ignoring the better-known problem of starlets and casting couches in favor of crimes more likely to gross out Middle America. The film often draws a distinction between homosexuality and pedophilia, which is insulting but perhaps necessary — it’s a point so basic that An Open Secret‘s best stab at it is a clip from that “Very Special” Diff’rent Strokes where Gordon Jump grooms a pal of Gary Coleman’s Arnold.
So the film is cautious, only taking on cases where an alleged victim is willing to speak on the record. They are convincing, and their stories are wrenching, alive with odd, hard-to-shake details. But Berg’s investigation has its triumphs. One victim, now grown up, confronts his abuser with an on-camera phone call: “That was something I wanted and shouldn’t have done,” the latter admits. The real shock, though, is that that remorseful predator, Michael Harrah, is first introduced in the film as a talking-head expert — after all, he was the head of the Screen Actors Guild’s Young Performers Committee. Berg then cuts back to her own interview with Harrah, and the questioning intensifies. He’s dismissive — he says his accuser must have perceived things differently — and soon removes his mic and leaves.
Berg shies away from striking out against the director Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects, various X-Mens), who has weathered accusations from one of the young men seen onscreen here. (That lawsuit was dismissed.) This is a relief after Berg’s last documentary, the aggressive and effective West of Memphis, which first demonstrated that it was wrong of Arkansas to railroad a couple kids for a murder just because they seemed odd — and then spent its back half committing the same sin by trying to pin the killing on a galoot from the same town.
Still, a bit of that West of Memphis aggressiveness stains the film. Take the title’s suggestion of an industry-wide understanding and acceptance of the practices outlined here. If that’s the truth of Hollywood — that the suits who cast preyed-upon kids know those kids are preyed upon — it’s not onscreen, here. Hollywood is not a strictly hierarchical institution like the Catholic Church, whose tolerance of pedophilia Berg helped expose in 2006’s Deliver Us From Evil. Early in An Open Secret, Todd Bridges of Diff’rent Strokes says that he was reluctant to appear in that special episode because he had been abused by his publicist for years — a secret nobody on the show knew. Berg has proven that there’s a circle of powerful creeps, doing the things powerful creeps do, but not that the blame for this goes straight to the top.
An Open Secret
Directed by Amy Berg
Rocky Mount Pictures
Opens June 12, Regal Cinemas E-Walk Stadium 13