The Dark History of Young Girls in Hollywood

Not just Woody: The dark history of young girls in Hollywood

by Nathalie Atkinson 
Woody Allen is hardly the first Hollywood mogul to be criticised for his treatment of young girls.
HandoutWoody Allen is hardly the first Hollywood mogul to be criticised for his treatment of young girls.
Thanks to the open letter from Dylan Farrow published by Nicholas Kristof, we’re talking about Woody Allen again, specifically the original accusations of sexual abuse that were originally dismissed in 1992, when Farrow was 7, because of inconclusive evidence. Dismissed thne but clearly, unresolved today.

The circus around Farrow’s detailed account magnifies the already troubling apparatus around sex, rape and celebrity, and in particular the penchant for underage girls, from the rumours about Robert Mitchum to R. Kelly. Last fall, Joyce Maynard spoke out against the J.D. Salinger documentary and biography, specifically about its dismissive treatment of the author’s lifelong fixation on underage girls. As though one could shrug that off by calling them “young women” as simply the prerogatives of old roués.

When Errol Flynn died of a heart attack in Vancouver in 1959, he had been acquitted more than a decade earlier of statutory rape; it was in the arms of his girlfriend of two years, 17-year-old Beverly Aadland. The two were introduced on a Warner Bros. lot where the aspiring actor and dancer was a chorine on an adjacent Gene Kelly movie set. (Their relationship, incidentally, is the subject of The Last of Robin Hood, a new movie starring Kevin Kline and Dakota Fanning.)

There have been many cases where Hollywood’s moral response has been more concretely disappointing.

One of them is detailed in Girl 27, David Stenn’s documentary about starlet Patricia Douglas;’ life after MGM’s collusion and cover-up of a June 1937 crime. It was a busy week for celebrity news: Jean Harlow died, the King of England abdicated and the studio threw a stag party for salesmen that resulted in one of the first federal rape cases.
Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images
Director Roman Polanski attends the Spanish premiere of his movie "The Pianist" December 3, 2002 at Capitol cinema in Madrid, Spain. According to reports, the Swiss government rejected a request July 12, 2010 from the U.S. extradite Polanski on charges of having sex with a13-year-old girl in 1977.
Douglas, so-called “girl 27” on the list of entertainment supplies, along with the 500 bottles of scotch provided for the 230 men in attendance, was among the dozens of Hollywood hopefuls tricked by MGM into attending a raucous party at Hal Roach’s secluded ranch (in those days frequently used as a movie shoot location), thinking it was an acting opportunity. It was more of a pimping situation, in which they were skimpily outfitted as cowgirls by Western Costume.

Sixty-five years after that June night, we meet Douglas, a victim archetype easily recognizable from central casting: she is a shut-in who has had a lifelong battle with a history of depression, broken relationships and estranged children. The son of Douglas’s own lawyer comes forward to clear his vicarious conscience and admits to all the dirty dealings that went on around the case and trial – MGM was, after all, the biggest employer in L.A. County, paid her mother off.

It shows in plain terms just how quickly and thoroughly a company town closed ranks and used women as a disposable commodity. It’s not much different than what happens in other industry towns, whether it’s a car manufacturing plant or a cotton plantation — but the difference is the fame and power of those local players dissipate outside the city limits.

Roman Polanski was only marginally a Hollywood insider but as an outsider he had, since the notorious murder of his wife Sharon Tate, by his own admission become something of a jet set celebrity. At Jack Nicholson’s Mulholland Drive house in 1977, Polanski gave a young girl champagne and a Qaalude and sodomized her. She was 13. She was also an aspiring actress. Does it matter? Apparently it did.

The girl, Samantha Geimer, now 50, writes that the subsequent grand jury was worse than the crime. In her memoir The Girl: A Life in the Shadow of Roman Polanski, she describes a probation report assessment by psychiatrists who were fans of the director and talked of him as one of the “leading creative forces of the last two decades,” going on to allude to his European upbringing at odds with the mores of Hollywood. Hers is a strong, complex, interesting and complicated position of survivor pride rather than damaged victim’s guilt. “I do not believe that punishment and spectacle can be substituted for justice,” she says.

In 1937, Pinkerton detectives dug up everything negative about Patricia Douglas and her mother that they could; not much had changed decades later in the atmosphere around Geimer’s case. In her memoir Geimer reproduces several news briefs from the L.A. Times, including one with this headline from April 21, 1977: “Polanski’s attorney to seek sex data on girl.” She writes that she was haunted less by the “terribleness” of that night in 1977 but everything that came after, hounded by the press, an atmosphere revived in 2009 when Polanski was arrested in Switzerland, and writes in part to correct misinformation and own her own story, in a country that manufactured outrage for a robust and lucrative “Victim Industry” (Nancy Grace, Dr. Phil, et al.).

Sometimes celebrity can warp judicial misconduct in the other direction, as is suggested was the case with Hollywood judge Judge Lawrence Rittenbrand, who “had cast himself as writer-director-producer-actor and was orchestrating every beat of this production, thinking only about what was best for his own image,” Geimer writes. She also contends that nothing equalled the “heady combination of sex, celebrity and depravity” until the 1995 O.J. Simpson trial. “This story doesn’t mention the insanity that preceded his flight — the egomaniacal judge, the unconscionable uncertainty of the sentencing, the case being played out not in the courtroom, but in the media,” she writes. “And here’s another problem: Roman Polanski’s arrest was, in a sense, my arrest.”

The following year, when Polanski failed to appear for sentencing, the rest became an unfortunate shared history dredged up every time he wins an award (Oscar, 2003) or makes headlines (2009) or the glib quips about Dylan Farrow’s accusations against Woody Allen resurface. Like Polanski, Allen operates largely outside the studio system but his films are populated by high-profile, bankable Hollywood actors who don’t.

Regardless of the artistic imperative as extenuating circumstance, the various accusations of vested interests and ulterior motives, in the cocktail of public outrage, popularity and judicial misconduct – which is what is hinted at in regards to the original 1992 dismissal of Farrow’s case, sometimes the unwitting victims of fame are also the famous themselves.

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