I was privileged to attend a private screening of the riveting, eye-opening documentary “An Open Secret” on Wednesday. Before the show, producer Gabe Hoffman explained the necessity of informing the public about child sex abuse in the entertainment industry. Evan, one of the abuse victims featured in the film, who was abused by his manager, discussed with me his involvement and goals afterwards.
The open scenes were a reminiscence for me. The documentary replayed a famous episode from “Diff’rent Strokes”: a bicycle owner and closet pedophile grooming Arnold (played by Gary Coleman). Watching that episode before, I tried to imagine the inner turmoil for child actor Todd Bridge (who played older brother Willis). The documentary’s next scenes answered all that. “I begged them to write me out of the script”, the adult Bridges admits. A survivor of sexual abuse from his publicist, Bridges discussed the shame and trauma following the abuse, then his fight out of the pain and victory into long-term recovery.
In featured archived footage, Corey Feldman, of “Goonies” fame, goes on the talk show news circuit, exposing the rampant child abuse and misconduct in Hollywood. A former police officer turned journalist, working with a former LA Times journalist, exposes a deeply wicked yet clever pedophile ring established by a New York media company, DEN. Wild parties, heavy drinking, prescription drugs, with skinny dipping, and heavy-hitting Hollywood producers thought they had created the perfect web for repeat pedophilia.
The film detailed how child actors, eager to please and succeed in the entertainment industry, become vulnerable. Early in the film, narrators described the intense hopes and the heightened competition of the entertainment industry. These kids seek careers in a highly competitive business, and managers-turned-molesters threaten them with an unofficial black-list from the industry if they expose their predators. Add the kids’ fears that no one will believe them. There is also the untold shame which child sex abuse victims feel, plus the confusion and fear which follow. A number of former child stars, youth with innate talent for stage and screen, now adults in different stages of growth and recovery, recounted the hurt and hate they overcame following the abuse the suffered from trusted adults in the industry abusers: photographers, publicists, managers, and producers.
The most chilling and engaging part of the documentary occurred toward the end, with Michael Harrah, himself a retired manager for child stars. An unsteady older man and former chairman within the Screen Actors Guild, he discussed the challenges facing child actors, their need to prepare for the worst of rejection, ongoing until a part finally opens up. Another member of the SAG committee, dedicated to protecting child actors, related her frustrated efforts with Harrah for stronger reforms to protect young people from pedophiles. Harrah rebuffed those concerns. In the latter scenes of the documentary, another adult victim of Hollywood child sex abuse, Joey C., calls former manager Michael Harrah. The conversation turns swiftly from the casual “How’ve you been?” to pointed remarks about Harrah’s inappropriate conduct with his former child star protégé. Harrah admits through the phone about his inappropriate conduct, i.e. sexual abuse. Cut to the next scene, Harrah denies any misconduct, then fields questions about his sexual interest in young children, and then alluded to his own childhood, and the abuse he suffered.
After the screening, a Q&A session opened, with one of the former victims, Evan H. joining the producer and the LA Times journalist, who helped expose Evan’s abusive manager Marty Weiss and other pedophilia scandals. Allusions to Jimmy Savile of the BBC emerged, the serial pedophile who for decades groomed, seduced, then abused hundreds of children, only for the record of his criminal deeds to come to light after his death. Other individuals in the documentary took to the stage to talk about the legislative reforms in place to ensure that adults in the industry are registered with the state, the same way teachers also submit their fingerprints to the FBI and the DOJ. Unfortunately, too many parents and entertainment professionals remain ignorant of this new “green card” policy.
Further questions focused on the reforms and the moral decadence (decay and decline) in Hollywood, plus the misapplied “R” rating for the film.
After the movie, the lobby quickly filled up. Conservative columnist Ann Coulter showed up and shared her thoughts about the film. I was interested in speaking with Evan H. and family. They discussed not only the disturbing shock of Evan’s manager Marty Weiss, but the steps they took to break free of the abuse, then what followed to have the abuser jailed.
Shocking and true, films like “An Open Secret” reveal pressing issues like child sex abuse, and the necessity of providing safe spaces for victims to speak out. For Evan, he participated in this film without pay, risking his chances in the entertainment industry. He then explained to me the inner conflicts he endured processing what his manager had done to him. “I mean, he was part of the family,” Evan related. To this day Weiss manages one of Evan’s cousins. How is this possible? The end of the movie detailed how serial offenders who plead guilty can receive probation and a fine, then register as sex offenders for life, but return to Hollywood. Weiss (and other convicted offenders) still work with children. Former producers behind “The Den” pedophilia ring still pursue business ventures, beyond the jurisdiction of the American criminal justice system.
At the end of the evening, Evan shared hopes that this film would encourage victims of sexual abuse not only to come forward, but that they do not have to fear losing their dreams in declaring the truth about prior pain. Evan is on his way to college, after making a major movie, and has the Hollywood press corps ablaze with interest. His dreams are certainly taking off.
Hollywood child sex abuse is an open secret no more. Hopefully more people from the Red Carpet to the Beltway will watch this movie.