It’s been almost a year since Bryan Singer managed to weather the storms of scandal after his most public accuser dropped his lawsuits alleging years of predatory underage sexual abuse against the X-Men director and several other Hollywood players.
This month, as the Duggar family’s sex abuse revelations spark a national conversation on molestation, victimization, and accountability, Singer and Co. should batten down the hatches again.
In the new scorched earth exposé An Open Secret, Oscar-nominated documentarian Amy Berg throws the curtains wide open on the alleged pedophilic ring of convicted and accused molesters linked to lavish, drug-fueled parties at the Encino mansion headquarters of now-defunct dot com web TV company Digital Entertainment Network (DEN) almost two decades ago.
Drive over the hill into Burbank and you pass the Oakwood Apartments, a sprawling 1,100-unit haven known for housing out-of-town child actors, wannabes, and their families. I always wonder how many ghosts of dreams past must still haunt the hallways at Oakwood, where a recent Deadline Hollywood investigation discovered two registered sex offenders convicted of crimes against minors were living this year.
Berg earned an Oscar nod for exposing similar pedophilic abuses within the Catholic Church in the affecting Deliver Us From Evil. Here, she’s forced to rein in the glare of her excoriating gaze on Singer despite that Michael Egan, the man who sued Singer for abusing him during trips to Hawaii in 1999 when Egan was a minor, is one of the film’s primary subjects.
When Egan dropped his lawsuit against Singer last year—and then lost more cred when he was indicted for fraud on unrelated federal charges—his narrative was edited out of the film. Now, An Open Secret merely implicates Singer by association with DEN (in which he was an investor).
That association alone is still pretty damning according to the film, which has plenty of other big fish to fry—like Singer associates and DEN founders Marc Collins-Rector, Chad Shackman, and The Mighty Ducks child actor Brock Pierce, and Brian Peck, the Nickelodeon producer and convicted sex offender who had a cameo in Singer’s X-Men and inexplicably accompanied his buddy on the film’s commentary track. These men and others like them, the film argues, preyed on wide-eyed, ambitious youngsters and tantalized them with parties, drugs, and promises of stardom.
The personal testimonies of five former child actors/models gives An Open Secret its gut-punching impact, as many detail the terror and confusion they felt falling victim to the managers, publicists, and agents they trusted. They recall the uncertainty of not knowing how to defend themselves against the older predatory mentors who were also helping guide their careers, many of whom spent years “grooming” the youngsters and their parents to earn their trust.
All of the now-older victims report feeling distraught, intimidated, traumatized, and even suicidal. Many of them turned to drugs and alcohol to deal with the abuse, or quit the industry altogether to sever ties to their poisoned dreams.
Actor and musician Evan H., the film’s unspoken hero, tells of the first time his manager, convicted sex abuser Marty Weiss, molested him in a park after taking him and several young boys out for a game of basketball.
“He was really immature and we were all immature back then, he would crack sex jokes and I didn’t think anything was wrong with it,” Evan says of the talent manager who’d ingratiated himself into his family gatherings and helped him land early gigs. “We would play basketball and he would make weird jokes like, ‘Evan, do you know what a blowjob is?’”
Years later, Evan H. secretly recorded Weiss confessing to his park assault on tape, only to have Weiss insist that the then-11-year-old was asking for it.
More famous actors who had brushes with Hollywood pedophiles and lived to tell also pop up in the film. Corey Feldman appears in archival footage railing against the Hollywood pedophiles who molested him and the late Corey Haim, as detailed in his 2013 memoir.
Diff’rent Strokes star Todd Bridges, who went public in 2010 with his own childhood sexual abuse at the age of 11 by his own publicist, describes begging to be written out of the show’s very special pedophile episode “because I had myself gone through that, and watching it happen on the show it was like reliving that all over again.”
But Berg’s impassioned exposé is also a flawed piece of nonfiction cinema. She opens the film with the story of “Mark R.,” an enthusiastic teen from Cincinnati with boy band good looks who dreamed of making it big in California, as told by his parents. The kicker to Mark R.’s saga of abuse, alcoholism, and tragedy lands like a sucker punch, injecting an already affecting personal tale with unnecessarily distracting cinematic manipulation.
It makes you wonder about Berg including her own line of on-camera questioning with Michael Harrah, a children’s talent manager who’s introduced as just another industry-expert talking head.
“Many of the kids that I worked with couldn’t have even been able to take advantage of being in the industry had they had their families move here with them,” says the now semi-retired Harrah, who was known to have his young clients move in with him without parental supervision.
Sitting for a separate interview, former child actor Joey Colman rings Harrah as the cameras roll. They trade polite pleasantries before Colman asks after Bob Villard, the manager whose client roster included Tobey Maguire and Leonardo DiCaprio. Villard was also known to take suggestive, half-nude pictures of young boys and sell them online.
Colman asks Harrah about the stories of Villard’s documented crimes against children. “I take these things with a grain of salt,” says Harrah, credited as a founder of the Screen Actors Guild’s Young Performers Committee. “I’m not sure how horrible they really are.”
In a moment of doc magic, Harrah actually admits to molesting Colman when he was a minor. “It’s something that I shouldn’t have done,” he says calmly.
“These are not Pollyannas. These are smart guys,” says ex-NYPD cop and investigative journalist John Connolly, who details for Berg his extensive research into the seedy underbelly of DEN.
Some of them are powerful, too. Connolly should know; after writing and fact-checking his own massive expose for Details magazine, editors killed his story.
The film ends on a PSA-style note, with a theme song titled “A Call to Arms,” a pledge to donate all proceeds to charity for sex abuse victims, and a sentiment calling for more dialogue around the taboo topic: “If we don’t speak out about this, then we are part of the problem.”