The mainstream, post-Weinstein phase of the MeToo movement is often considered in a vacuum. These ahistorical readings erase activists like Tarana Burke, the founder of the movement, as well as early accusers who did not have a hashtag, let alone any support or sympathy from their industry.
The new documentary Rocking the Couch, written and directed by Minh Collins and produced by Andrea Evans, focuses on sexual-misconduct allegations from the early ‘90s, but makes sure to establish that predatory behavior and sexual assault have always been Hollywood staples. This alternative history of Hollywood begins with the absolutely horrifying story of Virginia Rappe. In 1921, the American actress was allegedly raped by silent film star Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Rappe died four days after the alleged attack, and Arbuckle was charged with manslaughter. After the first two cases ended in a hung jury, Arbuckle was eventually acquitted in his third trial. But, as the documentary points out, his career never recovered—a far cry from our current wave of #MeToo comebacks.
After a heavily-abridged history of sexual-assault allegations in old-timey Hollywood, Rocking the Couch fast-forwards to the ‘80s and ‘90s. The documentary’s strongest and most compelling interviews are with a number of current and former actresses, reflecting on the sexual harassment and assault that functioned as their introductions to the entertainment industry.
Tonja Walker, a former Miss USA contestant, recalls moving out to L.A. and immediately getting soap opera work. At one casting, she met a soap star who proceeded to ask her out for dinner. Walker was excited for the date; she remembers hours of careful preparation, getting ready for their plans at 6:30. He showed up hours late, in a hockey jersey. “I knew immediately that this was bad,” she explains. They walked to pick up pizza, with Walker noting that, “I couldn’t wait to go home and be done with him.” At her door, she said goodnight—“and he said, not so fast.” The anonymous star closed her door and pushed her toward the bedroom, saying, “You know you want to do this.” He raped her and left, and she never heard from him again.
“Just because somebody’s famous, doesn’t mean they’re a good person,” Walker warns.
The documentary is distractingly littered with clips of a criminal defense attorney explaining basic terms, like sexual harassment and battery. In addition to being unnecessarily 101, these interludes take away from the accumulation of testimony after testimony, women whose stories mirror one another’s, simultaneously revealing the horror of sexual assault and its mundanity.
Alana Crow, an actress, shares stories of two separate attacks over the course of the film. While working on a soap one day, she was called into the stage manager’s office to sign her contract. The office was in the basement; she remembers walking in and hearing the door slam behind her. Crow was called back to set while she was being sexually assaulted. “I just sort of reorganized myself,” she narrates, “I had to get back upstairs. I just proceeded with the day, got through that day.” Crow called the union, presumably the Screen Actors Guild, but they “just said to do nothing, because I would be blacklisted from the network.”
“So I just bit the bullet and went on with my life, but it was always bothering me.” The documentary goes on to relay that, many years later, the stage manager for General Hospital, Jerry Blumenthal, was fired for sexual harassment. During an arbitration hearing contesting the firing, 12 women testified that they were sexually harassed on set.
After leaving Hollywood, Crow eventually returned in 1991, this time focusing on voice-acting work. In need of an agent, she started working her way down a list provided to her by the union. After a number of no’s, she approached the office of Wallace Kaye. Despite Crow’s specific career objectives, Kaye insisted that she read some commercial and then some theatrical copy. Eventually, he gave her a “sexy secretary script” and offered to read with her. “He moved in closer as we were reading,” she recalls. “I remember he grabbed my hand and put it right in his lap and he goes, how do you like the feel of my cock, something like that. And I tried pulling my hand away… he was much larger than I was.” Kaye continued to grab at her; meanwhile, “I was remembering what had happened before on the soap, and I was starting to panic.”
“I can’t go through this again,” she remembers thinking. “I just don’t want to be raped again.”
Thankfully, another actress knocked on the door, and Crow was able to get free. She remembers waiting until the other actress was done talking to Kaye, because she didn’t want to leave her alone with him.
Once again, Crow called her union, and once again, she was told that there was little she could do. They suggested she write a letter of complaint, which she did. According to the doc, SAG failed to respond, despite a “half-dozen other sexual-assault complaints about Mr. Wallace.” SAG-AFTRA did not respond to Rocking the Couch’s requests for comment on the case.
The allegations against Wallace Kaye finally came to light when a non-guild actress was turned away from filing a complaint with SAG, and instead reported to the Burbank Police Department. This leads to a surreal-seeming anecdote, in which the gang special investigations unit was called upon to catch Kaye in the act. A female detective, posing as an aspiring actress, set up a meeting with the talent agent. She was wearing a wire, and had police backup outside. This officer, Susan Hayn, tells the story in horrifying, exact detail—how Kaye locked the door and gave her the secretary skit, eventually starting to grab at her and kiss her. Detective Hayn pushed Kaye away and left the room. “When I was in that office I didn’t have my gun, I didn’t have anybody in there,” she recalls. “And when he was doing this to me it literally was disgusting… it was sickening.” She remembers leaving the office and going to her mother’s house to take a shower, “Just cause I wanted to cleanse myself.”
Kaye was arrested on multiple counts of sexual battery. In interviews with the D.A. and Kaye’s lawyer, we learn that Kaye and his wife adamantly refused to entertain any plea deals, insisting on his innocence. Kaye testified that all of the women were lying. “Some of them, in his opinion, were looking for some fame or notoriety.” The judge ultimately sentenced Kaye to five years and four months in jail. Afterwards, Detective Susan Hayn formally introduced herself to Kaye in his cell, where an apparently unrepentant Kaye insisted, “I knew she was a cop,” and called Hayn a “lousy actress.”
The documentary’s main thesis appears to be that the cases of Jerry Blumenthal and Wallace Kaye, among others, could have spurred a MeToo-style movement in the early ’90s, were it not for SAG-AFTRA and wider industry complicity. A 1992 Chicago Tribune article, “Casting couch on the way out,” also mentioned these two offenders, noting that, “women in the entertainment industry are speaking out in seminars and newsletters, filing complaints and lawsuits and taking steps to make their labor unions take sexual harassment more seriously.”
But these women were clearly fighting an uphill battle. As the Tribune article continues, “Marvin Kaplan, president of the Los Angeles local of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, suggested in an editorial this month in the union magazine that sexual harassment is a two-sided issue, stressing the idea that actresses come on to executives. ‘It was rape, rape, rape all summer long,’ Kaplan wrote with sarcasm. ‘Sexual harassment, no matter how repugnant, is not on most people`s lists of union priorities.’”
Rocking the Couch ends on a second set of stories—those that might have been prevented had the industry taken the issue of widespread sexual harassment and assault more seriously. These accounts are interspersed with victim-shaming talking head interviews that seemingly attempt to complicate the issue; a male producer talking about how women will offer to sleep with him to appear in a film (“it’s a double-edged sword”), and another one claiming that some accusers come forward to get talk show offers. These ill-conceived attempts to offer another side of the story just detract from the testimonies at hand. An actress who has chosen to remain anonymous tells a story of meeting an agent for dinner: “He ended up putting something in my drink… I remember waking up at his house and the next morning didn’t know what happened.”
Two actresses, Lauren Anastasi-Peter and Sadie Katz, offer juxtaposed accounts of their early years in the industry. Katz recalls a string of dinners with male producers, set up by her female manager. “I’m sort of unknowingly part of this escort business!” she exclaims. “I’m not sleeping with these guys, but I’m so young… This is the kind of stuff that happens to young actors, and I just didn’t know it.” She finally realized what was going on when one of the producers suggested that she write “willing to give BJs” on her résumé if she really wanted to get parts.
Meanwhile, in New York, Anastasi-Peter went to a casting in an apartment building. When it was her turn, she left the lobby full of aspiring actresses and went up to a room; the director promptly left, trusting the star of the film, “Josh,” with his fictional girlfriend’s casting. “Josh” urged her to be “uninhibited” in the scene, and took his clothes off. She took her shirt off as well. “I’m not finding any of this uncomfortable,” she recalls, “It was professional.” At one point in the scene, she remembers seeing a video camera, possibly recording. As soon as the lines are over, they both got dressed, and he told her that she nailed the scene. Anastasi-Peter remembers leaving the building and being hit with a wave of nausea and understanding—“I felt like I was going to vomit.” She walked back in and asked the women in the lobby if the audition was recorded, but they were flustered and didn’t give her a clear answer. Anastasi-Peter searched the internet for years, terrified that the tape would get out. She didn’t audition for any more films after that.