The furor over “Hounddog” was poised to peak Monday night with the film’s Sundance Film Festival premiere at the Racquet Club Theater.
Instead of the usual post-screening Q&A, the producers scheduled a panel that included stars Dakota Fanning and Robin Wright Penn, director Deborah Kempmeier and a representative from RAINN, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. The idea was to create a forum to discuss the film’s child rape issues and combat what’s become, as one person close to the film said, “a circus.”
Something stronger than a panel may be necessary.
Although “Hounddog” had its first public forum Monday at 8 p.m., the film already had inspired a saber-rattling press release from the Catholic League — a civil rights group known for its strident attacks on the media’s handling of morality issues — calling for a federal investigation of its potential as child pornography and a flurry of newspaper articles and television reports debating its ethics, morality and legality.
The point of contention is a scene in which 12-year-old Fanning, portraying a 12-year-old girl named Lewellen, is raped by an older boy.
“It’s a bad idea on so many levels,” said actress Alison Arngrim, who cited “Hounddog” as one reason she chose to leave the commercial division of the Osbrink Agency last year; Fanning’s agent is Cindy Osbrink.
“Cindy Osbrink has been quoted cautioning parents to be extremely careful about doing a scandalous project,” says Arngrim, best known as Nellie on “Little House on the Prairie.” She is involved with groups such as A Minor Consideration and Protect: the National Assn. to Protect Children. “I was really looking for an explanation.”
Arngrim said she didn’t get one, but she has one of her own: “There’s a panic that comes as a child actor grows up. How do they get over the adolescent hump?”
In an interview that Fanning gave last week to the New York Times, the actress dismissed the controversy: “The bottom line was, I couldn’t not do it. It’s all I could think about. I knew I was at the perfect age … I think that I should be able to do what I feel is at the right time for me.”
But is a 12-year-old capable of making that decision?
“A 12-year-old girl can’t consent to any damn thing,” said Andrew Vachss, a child protection consultant and attorney who exclusively represents kids. “The process by which the child actor or actress gets to do this … it’s not like a kid wants a minibike or karate lessons. A lot of weight is being put on this child.”
A Variety editor who screened the film before Sundance said the rape scene, while disturbing, isn’t graphic, with close-ups of Fanning’s face, shoulder and part of a leg. To Vachss’ mind, however, that scenario only begs further questions.
“Who’s looking out for this kid? My question would be, ‘What do you need my client in this scene for? You can’t find an arm or a leg in Hollywood?’ ”
The film’s most vocal critic has been Catholic League president William Donohue, who put out a press release Friday asking the Dept. of Justice to investigate. He also wrote “to first lady Laura Bush requesting her assistance in this endeavor.”
Since then, Donohue hasn’t heard from Andrew Oosterbaan, the DoJ’s chief of the Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section, or from the first lady.
Donahue said he knows he could watch a DVD copy of the film (“they’re making it available to social conservatives”), but he said he’s not interested: “If someone tells me that there’s a statue of Martin Luther King with an erection receiving oral sex, I don’t need to see it.”
Donohue also admitted it’s unlikely that the film or its production falls within statutes of child pornography, but “I’m trying to create a national discussion about the propriety of using children in simulated rape acts.”
Vachss called that argument “nonsense.”
“Are you serious? Investigating a public film as possible child porn? It’s the red herring of all time to talk about child porn,” he said. “There’s so much actual child porn, and he’s not calling for increased congressional funding or more investigative tools, but a scene needs to be investigated?”