Hollywood on Parade: Silence and the Abuse of Power

When I was 22 and fresh out of college, I went to Hollywood to pursue my dream of becoming a screenwriter. It didn’t take long for my eyes to be opened. When a family friend introduced me to a well-known producer (we’ll call him Eddie Jones), I thought it would be my big break. He offered me a job as his personal assistant, reading scripts, running errands. He also promised to take a look at any projects of my own. What I didn’t know was that the only reason I got the position was because he couldn’t keep a secretary. Turns out he had a notorious reputation in Hollywood circles for wandering hands. Everyone knew it, but of course no one talked about it. Sexual assault, the old “casting couch,” drug use, even doping his victims. I got wise one evening when he asked me to stay late and answer the phones—I realized later that what I was really doing was acting as sentry.

About 6:00 the door buzzer rang, and in stepped the tallest, lankiest Swede I’d ever seen. Full-length chinchilla, probably nothing on underneath, no shoes or stockings. I’d seen prostitutes before, on street corners, but never the high-class variety. She told me she had an appointment. I buzzed him on the intercom. What could I say? I fumbled, “Umm, Eddie…. Your six o’clock is here.”

She went in. A few moments later, he poked his head out and asked me to bring a bottle of Soave Bolla from the fridge and a couple of glasses. Cheap bastard, I thought. Eddie had a reputation in the business for bringing projects in under budget. That’s how you stay alive in Hollywood. But if you’re going to go all the way and commit adultery, I thought, at least open up a bottle of Piesporter.

I thought that would be the end of my duties, but I was wrong. After a while, the phone rang. It was the head producer, the owner of the company, who was, not coincidentally, Eddie’s relative, a well-known actor and a powerful man in Hollywood. “Need to speak to Eddie, please,” he said.

I recognized the voice immediately but I was stalling. “Whom may I say is calling?”

He sounded surprised, or maybe a little indignant. Not used to waiting. “It’s Arny Jones.”

I snapped to attention. “Oh, yes, Mr. Jones. Ummm… Eddie is in conference right now, and asked not to be disturbed.” What else was I to say? I’m sorry, your nephew’s with a prostitute. Can I take a message?

Irritated he hung up. But I was amazed at how easy it was to lie, even to the head of the company, to cover up someone else’s folly. I breathed a sigh of relief. Well, at least the worst was over. Not so.

The phone rang again. This time it was Eddie’s wife. In those split seconds between our salutations, I fantasized what it would be like to tell her straight out, “Sorry, you husband’s in the sauna with Miss Sweden. You’re welcome to come on down and wait. We’ve got Soave Bolla.” But no, it was much easier to lie. I realized I had no right to destroy this man’s marriage, any more than he had had the right to manipulate me into acting as sentry for his sexual addiction.

At seven I clocked out. I drove home with tears in my eyes. This was supposed to be my dream. My big break. I was supposed to be a screenwriter. Instead, I was a panderer, a pimp. I prayed, and the answer I got was not what I expected, but it changed my life.

A still but audible Voice said, “You’ve shown me what you want to do with your life. You’ve never asked me to show you what I want you to do.”

It was true. Since childhood, my dream had been to be a screenwriter. I had assumed that was God’s will, too. “What do you want me to do?” I asked with trepidation.

“Ministry.” One simple word. How odd. I had never contemplated ministry before, but strangely, it all seemed to make sense. And I felt such peace. As if the pieces of my life lay scattered like a puzzle, awaiting the center piece to bring the image together.

The next day I gave Eddie my notice. He did not look surprised. I’m sure he knew I was angry at being used. If working in Hollywood meant complicity, it was a price I was not willing to pay.  After leaving his employ I continued to write screenplays. Directors said they liked my work, but soon I was too busy preparing for seminary to devote much time to it.

Then, oddly, several months later, he called, out of the blue. Fortunately, I wasn’t home. My mother picked it up.

“Tell Steve I want him to come back to work for me. He needs to complete his training,” he insisted.

(Yeah, training.)

“I’m sorry, Eddie. He’s not going back to Hollywood,” Mom explained. “He’s going into the ministry.”

Eddie was silent for a moment, then blurted out, “A priest?!! Huh!! Did I do that?!”

Yes, Eddie, you did. And I’m grateful.

I was reminded of this story this week, with all the controversy surrounding the Harvey Weinstein revelations. “I came of age in the 60s and 70s, when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different,” Weinstein said in a statement following The New Yorker exposé. “That was the culture, then.”

Nice try.  Sure, the 1960s popularized “free love,” but that was supposed to be between two consenting adults. As I recall, rape and molestation were not touted as part of the new permissive society. You can’t have free love if one of the participants is not free to choose, either because of intimidation or sheer violence. No, this behavior has little to do with the 1960s. It goes back much further than that, to the early part of the last century, when the first wagon-loads of producers, directors, and actors chose the sunny hills of California to shoot their westerns. And then, they were only importing a culture of patriarchy and exploitation of women they had borrowed from the impresarios of the eastern entertainment establishments (Broadway, Vaudeville, Tin Pan Alley).

As shocking as these revelations are, they are only the tip of a gigantic iceberg, part of a long, long history of sexual abuse and addiction in the entertainment industry, a century-old corporate culture founded on the abuse of power. It’s part of the patriarchy known as Hollywood. And silence is part of the price of doing business there.

I was fortunate. I was young. I had no career to protect. No projects or contracts to insure my silence or complicity. I was not sacrificing years of hard work. I was unemployed but I had a home—and a God who loved me and who had a better plan for my life. But as we will see in the months and years ahead, now that the curtain of silence has been torn and more testimonies will be hitting the headlines, there are many, many talented people who were not so fortunate, who were victims of or complicit in a demonic, pay-to-play system of sexual exploitation and bullying.


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