'An Open Secret': Film Review
Amy Berg turns from molestation in the priesthood to Hollywood sex abuse
A sober look at accusations that lend themselves to sensationalism, Amy Berg's An Open Secret looks at the sexual exploitation of teenage boys in the entertainment industry by the older men who can make or break their careers. Though its premiere comes at a time when some other long-ignored Hollywood sex-crime cases (like rape allegations against Bill Cosby) are drawing new attention, Berg's film is very tightly focused, examining just one arena of abuse and dutifully addressing only cases in which an accuser is willing to appear on camera. Observers here assure us that these stories are the tip of an iceberg, but Secret is wary of vague accusations and hearsay; it also, despite multiple references to Bryan Singer in its accounts of hedonistic parties, steers clear of airing the accusations that one of its interviewees made in a lawsuit filed earlier this year, then withdrawn after the accuser's prior inconsistent statements emerged. This praiseworthy caution will likely keep the doc from attracting as much attention as many seem to expect (despite a surprise or two involving non-celebrities late in the film); it will play best on cable, where with any luck it will encourage other victims to speak up, and enlighten the parents of showbiz aspirants about the industry's dangers.
Berg focuses mostly on two settings of abuse: The mansion home of Marc Collins-Rector, a founder of a short-lived web-video portal called Digital Entertainment Network (DEN), and the practice of child-actor manager Martin Weiss, who was convicted of abuse thanks to the brave work of a former client referred to here as Evan H. (Even in cases where victims' names are well known, Berg refers to them all in this way.)
A handful of young men who endured abuse start the film by recalling their introductions to the business, when possible music, acting or modeling careers brought them to Los Angeles. We also meet Michael Harrah, one of the first managers to specialize in juvenile clients and a cofounder of SAG's Young Performer's Committee, who walks us through what it's like for newcomers whose parents may not even be able to join them in L.A. while they get careers started. While to some extent this is familiar terrain, the age of the players complicates the template of the starry-eyed, easily manipulated novice: In these circumstances, for instance, some young actors and their parents think it's perfectly reasonable for an adult to have a group of teen clients over to sleep at his home (the better to get them to those early-morning auditions) or even to stay there for an extended period.
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Weiss's case with Evan H. sounds like many molestation stories outside the industry: He was a cut-up with youths who was charming with adults as well, so ingratiating he'd never be suspected of wrongdoing. Evan's parents recall how much the entire family liked him, and we see home videos of him hanging out in their home at Christmas and other gatherings. Then one night, while driving around with the boy he signed at the age of eleven, he asked "have you ever seen an old man's penis before?"
In the case of Collins-Rector and his DEN associates, the seduction was less sly. They threw regular all-male parties, inviting both the young boys who attracted them and the wealthy industry players who invested in the company, and plied the kids with booze and pills. After dusk, we're told, skinny-dipping in the pool and hot tub was mandatory. Berg asserts that Singer, a DEN investor, attended these parties; but she stops at the point of implying that he at the very least knew what was happening between his hosts and the underage guests. One wonders if the film had a different shape earlier this year, when Michael Egan III (he's "Mike E." here) filed abuse suits against Singer and three others. Instead of getting into that case (and having to explain its inconsistencies and its eventual withdrawal), she focuses on Collins-Rector, who has been convicted of child abuse.
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Even the most clearly guilty men here got away with infuriatingly light punishment. But what's most shocking is hearing of the convicted sex offenders, like actor and frequent Nickelodeon employee Brian Peck, who continue to work around child actors. With such minor consequences for those who've been convicted, is it any wonder that so few relatively powerless youths are willing to endure the shame and professional consequences of coming forward?
Production company: Esponda Productions
Director: Amy Berg
Screenwriters: Amy Berg, Billy McMillin, Lorien Haynes
Producers: Amy Berg, Katelyn Howes
Executive producers: Alan Hoffman, Matthew Valentinas
Director of photography: Jenna Rosher
Editors: Billy McMillin, Phil Thangsombat
Music: Gary Lightbody, John McDaid
No rating, 99 minutes