×

Film Review: ‘An Open Secret’

Young boys exploited by their managers, agents and casting directors forms the explosive subject matter of Amy Berg's nonsensationalist Hollywood documentary.

“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.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'An Open Secret'

Reviewed at DOC NYC (Special Events), Nov. 14, 2014.  Running time: 99 MIN.

Production: (Documentary) An Esponda production in association with Disarming Films. Produced by Amy Berg, Katelyn Howes. Executive producers, Alan Hoffman, Matthew Valentinas. Co-producers, Peter Clune, Alex Riguero.

Crew: Directed by Amy Berg. Written by Berg, Billy McMillin, Lorien Haynes. Camera (color, HD), Jenna Rosher; editors, McMillin, Phil Thangsombat; music, Gary Lightbody, John McDaid; sound designer/re-recording mixer, Garrett Montgomery.

More Film

  • Tuva-Novotny

    Tuva Novotny Questions Monogamy in 'Diorama' Pic (EXCLUSIVE)

    HAUGESUND, Norway  — Actress-turned-helmer Tuva Novotny thrives on big challenges. Her feature debut “Blindspot,” Norway’s entry for the 2019 Nordic Council Prize, was shot in real-time in one take and illuminates mental health issues. Her sophomore mainstream Swedish pic “Britt Marie Was Here” –slated for a Sept. 20 U.S. release via Cohen Media Group –  [...]

  • Seizure

    Writer Megan Gallagher On Her Viaplay Supernatural Nordic-Noir 'Seizure'

    With outposts in Copenhagen, Stockholm and Oslo, Miso Film has become one of the most influential film and TV outfits in Scandinavia. On August 19, the company’s Norwegian arm lifted the curtain on its series venture, the supernatural police drama “Seizure” by premiering the show’s first two episodes at the Haugesund Film Festival ahead of [...]

  • Thoma-Robsahm

    World Partners Board “a-ha The Movie” as Helmer Tells It All (EXCLUSIVE)

    HAUGESUND, Norway  — Pitched at Haugesund’s New Nordic Films confab, Thomas Robsahm and Aslaug Holm’s doc “a-ha -The Movie” won’t hit screens before November 2020, but an array of new production and distribution partners have already boarded the project. Clementina Hegewisch of Neue Impuls and Matthias Greving of Kinescope Film in Germany are now co-producing [...]

  • “@Chica-Chile-Norway”

    Miso Film Norway Unveils ‘Tainted’ Details, Drive to Target Youth Audiences (EXCLUSIVE)

    HAUGESUND, Norway  — Miso Film Norge, the Oslo-based arm of one of the most prominent of Scandinavian production outfits whose credits include “1864,” Warrior“ and Netflix’s “The Rain,” has part lifted the curtain on its latest scripted venture, the teen revenge-thriller “Tainted.” The TV outfit produced the 8×30 series in collaboration with Norwegian public broadcaster [...]

  • The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon

    Film News Roundup: Stephen King's 'Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon' Movie in the Works

    In today’s film news roundup, a Stephen King horror movie is in the works, “Downton Abbey” is seeing strong sales and a project about Revolutionary War soldier Deborah Sampson is in development. KING ADAPTATION Stephen King’s “The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon” has been set up as a movie at George A. Romero’s Sanibel Films, [...]

  • Moviepass

    MoviePass Confirms Security Issue With Customer Records

    MoviePass, the struggling movie ticket subscription service, has confirmed a security issue may have exposed customers’ records. In a statement, MoviePass said Wednesday that the security lapse was recently discovered and its system was immediately secured. Reports of the data breach first surfaced Tuesday through the Tech Crunch site, which alleged that tens of thousands [...]

  • Matthew Modine

    Matthew Modine Accused of Violating Labor Laws With Campaign Videos

    Matthew Modine has been accused by SAG-AFTRA president Gabrielle Carteris of violating federal laws in his campaign to unseat Carteris. The production of three campaign videos for Modine by the for-profit New York Film Academy — on whose board Modine sits — has been blasted by Carteris for alleged violations of federal labor law prohibiting [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content