Unpacking the disturbing trend of Hollywood sexual assault

Jess Grynfeld 14 November 2017

cn: sexual assault

Sexual abuse allegations against Kevin Spacey have continued to mount since late October, after Anthony Rapp came forward with claims that Spacey made sexual advances towards him when he was just fourteen. Rapp told Buzzfeed News that, at a party at Spacey’s apartment, the actor picked him up “like a groom picks up the bride over the threshold”, laid him on a bed and climbed on top of him. Spacey would have been 26 years old at the time. Since this allegation Mexican actor Roberto Cavazos has claimed that harassment and assault were common at the Old Vic theatre, where Spacey was artistic director for 11 years, telling The Guardian “it seems that it only took a male under 30 to make Mr Spacey feel free to touch us.” The allegations have not stopped there: filmmaker Tony Montana has accused Spacey of “forcefully” groping him, while multiple anonymous men have made claims of sexual assault – one of which, reported to Vulture, details the attempted rape of another fourteen year old boy.

What these allegations appear to have in common is Spacey’s absolute abuse of power, and the difficulty for victims in the film and TV industry to speak out against such a well-known perpetrator. Even as allegations become more prolific, House of Cards employees speaking to CNN have remained anonymous “for fear of professional repercussions for speaking out”. One production assistant claims that when he made a complaint about sexual harassment the supervisor’s solution was just to make sure Spacey was never left alone with him on set. He describes a “toxic environment” for those working with Spacey, and was allegedly assaulted by him months after the complaint.  Netflix responded to these allegations in a statement saying “Netflix was just made aware of one incident, five years ago, that we were informed was resolved swiftly.” Since then it has announced that it will “not be involved with any further production of House of Cards that includes Kevin Spacey” and will no longer be releasing the film Gore, which the actor starred in.

While Kevin Spacey’s career is experiencing some fallout as a result of these allegations (he has been dropped by his agency and publicist, and lost out on a special Emmy award “in light of recent events”) the film industry appears often to turn a blind eye to allegations of abuse. Anna Graham Hunter wrote a guest column in The Hollywood Reporter detailing the sexual harassment she experienced working with Dustin Hoffman on the set of Death of a Salesman, when she was 17 years old. A diary entry she kept from the time has written in it “today, when I was walking Dustin to his limo, he felt my ass four times. I hit him each time, hard, and told him he was a dirty old man”. Another entry describes Hoffman asking for his breakfast order – “I’ll have a hard-boiled egg … and a soft-boiled clitoris”, at which “his entourage burst out laughing.” Graham Hunter writes “I left, speechless. Then I went to the bathroom and cried.”

These experiences went unacknowledged at the time, and 32 years later it appears little has changed. Despite further claims from Wendy Riss Gatsiounis that he propositioned her during a pitch meeting in 1991, Hoffman presented prizes at the Hollywood Film Awards on Sunday night – an evening that passed without any comment upon the allegations levelled against him. These are not really new revelations – Hoffman told Playboy in 2009 that he lost his virginity by pretending to be his older brother in a darkened room, and Streep alleged in a 1979 Time article that Hoffman grabbed her breast while she was auditioning for a play he was directing.

Perhaps part of the difficulty of acknowledging sexual abuse in the film industry is that no one wants to believe that the artists behind beloved films are engaging in predatory behaviour. The director of Death of a Salesman defended Hoffman, calling him a “kidder” on set who, if he “knew that she would be upset when he was teasing her… wouldn’t have done it.” This is a compelling narrative for any fan, but we cannot allow our admiration for an actor’s work to bias us against the claims of victims of assault. It appears that the industry, from Harvey Weinstein to the abuse shown in Amy Berg’s documentary An Open Secret, is already unsympathetic enough.