Film Review: An Open SecretDevastating and disheartening, this bombshell-heavy Amy Berg exposé about rampant sexual abuse of child actors in the film industry should be required viewing for any parents thinking of sending their son or daughter off to Hollywood.
In some of Amy Berg’s previous works, like West of Memphis, for all their deeply packed disgust at the injustices savaging the powerless, there was usually a glimmer of hope, the chance of an indictment, exoneration, or some other reckoning. Viewers could leave the theatre disgusted, but yet hoping against hope that somehow justice would be done. That hope isn’t to be found in An Open Secret, which paints a chilling portrait of endemic child abuse at all levels of the movie and TV industry and the lack of any appetite for corrective action.
With a dramatic urgency that never crosses into exploitation, the film weaves together the quietly powerful stories of several male actors victimized while working to get ahead in the industry’s Darwinian environment that rewarded willingness and punished truth-telling. She starts with Todd Bridges, who talks about the abuse he suffered as a child actor, in between clips from the famous 1983 “Bicycle Man” two-part Diff’rent Strokes episode that dealt with child abuse in typical very-special fashion. Bridges sets the stage for a narrative about the fabric of Hollywood being shot through with systemic abuse of young performers who almost never bring charges. Multiple interviewees make clear that every abused child actor faces a stark choice: Do nothing and hope your career is advanced, or report it and never work again. The power of that threat is clear, with Bridges the only widely known actor to appear on camera. (Corey Feldman’s charges of widespread abuse are represented here only in footage from other sources.)
One after another good-natured boy-next-door—for reasons that aren’t explained, the film focuses only on young men, not female performers—describes his wide-eyed introduction to the industry and the predation that followed. With her warmly empathic methodology, Berg crafts a humane tone around these stories that individualizes each of their tellers, never allowing them to blend back into the group. This is particularly true of Mark Ryan, a bright-eyed, young would-be actor from Ohio whose tragic story of trauma and addiction is told by his parents for reasons that become clear in the film’s deftly handled reveal at the conclusion.
The systemic and routine nature of what they describe is the film’s most disturbing aspect. Marty Weiss, a manager for child performers, is accused of insinuating himself into actors’ families in order to make his predation that much harder to detect. Confronted later by one of his alleged victims (who was 12 years old at the time), Weiss defends himself in almost blasé fashion by claiming, “I never would have done anything with you if you hadn’t expressed interest.” Michael Harrah, a child actor who later managed children for decades and is practically the only industry figure to be interviewed (he was a founding member of the SAG Young Performers Committee), acknowledges that the abuse happens all the time. But he also blithely downplays the life-altering trauma. “This is not a terrible thing unless you think it is,” he incredibly says to Joey Coleman, a former client who secretly tapes a conversation in which Harrah seems to acknowledge—like Weiss in a very off-the-cuff way that suggests a belief that this is just how it is—molesting Coleman. (Perhaps due to Harrah’s stunning admissions, SAG reportedly threatened legal action against Berg unless she made numerous edits, including cutting out all mention of SAG.)
The film’s investigation goes deepest with the curious and queasy story of Digital Entertainment Network (DEN). An early pioneer in Web-broadcast television during the 1990s’ dot-boom, DEN attracted both investors and apparently predators. Using a trove of cringe-worthy ’90s MTV-style DEN archival footage and drawing heavily on John Connolly, an investigative reporter with the brusque manner of the cop he once was, Berg reveals a media company that operated more as a front for lavish mansion parties and the pimping out of the young men who gathered around DEN’s founders hoping for a break at stardom. Connolly refers to it as essentially a “pedophile ring.” Although barely remembered now, for a time DEN attracted big money and big names. One investor was X-Men director Bryan Singer, who shows up briefly here in old DEN footage and who last year faced charges of sexual assault (later dropped), along with former DEN chairman Marc Collins-Rector.
Berg’s film correctly bills itself in the opening moments as “the movie Hollywood doesn’t want you to see.” But if this film is to be believed, between the level of anxiety about speaking out and the lack of any institutional desire to open this Pandora’s box, the industry so far has little to fear.
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