“An Open Secret,” Amy Berg’s nonsensationalist expose of the sexual abuse of young male actors by those with the power to make or break them, recasts an old Hollywood story, substituting boys for starlets and hot tubs for casting couches. Though clearly championing the cause of the ex-child thesps who candidly recount their ordeals, Berg’s crusade advances on eggshells, dodging the potential lawsuits looming at every name named. This caution somewhat fudges the film’s throughline, but if Berg can find a distrib willing to brave the forces that have silenced this open secret for decades, the documentary should find avid auds worldwide.
The film incorporates the testimony of several ex-child performers, interpolating their interviews throughout, sometimes merely as quick corroboration of another’s story and sometimes in great detail, complete with clips from commercials and TV shows in which they appeared. Segments with several parents, expressing their horror and/or justifying or lamenting their blindness in retrospect, intensify the emotional impact of their children’s testimonies.
In contrast to the victims’ well-composed and skillfully lit widescreen interviews, the “predators,” as they are designated, show up in grainy homemovies, TV newscasts and newspaper photographs. Berg structures her stories for maximum shock effect: The ultimate fate of Mark R., whose graphic deposition is tearfully read aloud by his father, is often hinted at but not revealed until almost the end of the film, where it comes as a surprise.
Evan H.’s vivid account of his abuse by his manager, Marty Weiss, is backed by a clandestine audio tape that unspools on camera, broadcasting Weiss’ self-justifying admission of guilt. But it is the copious homemovie footage of Weiss at Evan’s house on multiple occasions, where he is accepted as a genial presence and an integral part of the family, that resonates most tellingly in hindsight.
If Weiss incarnates the fun-loving, family-friendly predator, slowly grooming his victim to accept his advances as normal, Marc Collins-Rector embodies a more corporate, violent form of pedophilia, his hyphenate name, heavy-lidded eyes and supercilious look straight out of central casting. Together with Chad Shackley and Brock Pierce, he founded DEN, an early digital entertainment network, and threw sybaritic celebrity-studded parties where they seduced underage aspiring actors with promises of plum parts and threats of industry blackballing. When high-pressure persuasion didn’t work, according to one victim, they resorted to drugs and rape.
One of Berg’s biggest rug-pullers involves sexagenarian Michael Harrah, introduced as head of the Screen Actors Guild’s Young Performers Committee, and interviewed in the widescreen, well-lit mode of the doc’s victims and spokespersons. It only gradually becomes evident that Harrah is one of the bad guys, his confused, waffling denials suddenly ringing hollow after a cell-phone confession to one of his former proteges.
But the most shocking aspect of Berg’s documentary is what it presents as the abusers’ utter lack of accountability. The widely reported lawsuits brought against Bryan Singer and other notables by Michael Egan III (identified here as Mike E.) were dropped, ostensibly for inconsistencies in the victim’s account, proving Berg’s point but skewing what one supposes was her intended structure for the film (Singer’s name is still loosely bandied about in connection to the pool parties). An in-depth examination into DEN’s questionable practices by an investigative reporter was summarily axed by the magazine that commissioned it.
Even when convicted of sex crimes, offenders receive light sentences and can calmly resume their careers in the industry, the case of Brian Peck at Nickelodeon and other kidvid venues being a prime but by no means lone example. When menaced by a hefty sentence, Collins-Rector simply relocated his operations to Europe.
“An Open Secret” seems remarkably devoid of any larger context. Except for brief snippets featuring abuse victims Todd Bridges and Corey Feldman, the film seeks no historical backstory, remaining solidly anchored in the 1990s/2000s. Similarly, the entertainment industry’s scandalous casting-couch legacy and the major studios’ decades-long efforts to quell all scandal are never alluded to. Ultimately, however, the amazing invincibility of Hollywood-entrenched pedophiles creates a thematic unity of its own in Berg’s otherwise somewhat shakily constructed film.