'Rocking the Couch': How SAG covered up multiple sexual assault complaints in Hollywood before the advent of #MeToo movement
The film union, before the advent of #MeToo era and public declarations of sexual assaults by actors on social media, was as complicit in the industry's abusive culture as the perpetrators themselves.
Little work has been done in Hollywood to address its noxious "casting couch" culture and rampant sexual misconduct in the film industry. It was not until the #MeToo movement gained steam in 2017 when the industry's labor union — Screen Actors Guild‐American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) — decided to take initiatives to address the grievances of its members. The film union, before the advent of #MeToo era and public declarations of sexual assaults by actors on social media, was as complicit in the industry's abusive culture as the perpetrators themselves.
A new documentary 'Rocking the Couch', written and directed by Minh Collins, highlights a crucial moment in the industry's history, a #MeToo movement of the 90s, that never took off as the union turned its back on it. Produced by Andrea Evans, the film begins by establishing the deeply ingrained predatory behavior in Hollywood dating back to the first recorded sexual assault case in the industry in the 1920s of actress Virginia Rappe. The American actress was allegedly raped in 1921 by silent film star Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle under the influence of alcohol. The assault was so brutal that Rappe died after four days. Arbuckle was charged with manslaughter for the alleged attack, however, he was eventually acquitted. Although Rappe didn't get her justice, the scandal did ruin Arbuckle's career.
The film mentions multiple similar cases and allegations across the decades until it reaches the 80s and the 90s, where victims of sexual assault in the industry — current and former actresses —narrate their horror stories themselves. Many of the actresses narrate their brushes with sexual misconduct but they all particularly talk about the nightmare they had to live through when they met stage manager of 'General Hospital' Jerry Blumenthal and talent agent, Wallace Kaye.
Out of the several stories narrated by the victims, the most striking appears to be of Alana Crow, an actress, who had to go through the ordeal not once but twice. Crow narrates two separate attacks, where one occurred when she was working on a major soap opera one day and was called into the stage manager's office to sign her contract. The manager's office was in the basement, she walked in, heard the door slam behind her and she was pushed up against the desk.
"I was basically raped, the next thing I know I was being called to the set. They gave me five [minutes]," Crow said. "I was embarrassed, didn’t know what to do. I sort of reorganized myself, I had to proceed with work, I had to get back upstairs, I just proceeded with the day, somehow got through.”
"I didn’t know who to talk to there, so I called the union up, asking them what to do. They asked me to do nothing because I would be blacklisted from the network, that show, any other shows from that network, and blacklisted from other company this person was also associated with," the actress added. "I just bit the bullet and went on with my life but it was always bothering me. I stayed in the business for a few more years.”
The film later relays that Blumenthal was fired for sexual harassment. When he contested the firing, at least 12 women came up to testify that they were sexually harassed on set.
The second such experience Crow faced was with Wallace Kaye. The talent agent would ask actresses to "audition" for various improvisational scenes which were sexual in nature and the timings of this would generally be scheduled for late evening and early morning behind locked doors at his office.
The film brings in multiple victims who share their experience with Kaye, including a female police officer, who became a victim herself during an undercover operation. All the victims reportedly went to the union with their complaints but it told them that they could not do much about it. The case, however, finally took a turn and became public when actress Charmaine Blakely went to the Burbank Police Department with her complaint after the union sent her away. Kaye was eventually arrested and after testimonies of several victims, he was sentenced to five years and four months in prison.
Director Minh Collins, while talking about how he came about Kaye's case told MEA Worldwide (MEAWW) that they were looking for a centerpiece for the film to focus on when a lawyer told them about the case. Collins hadn't heard of it.
"We started looking into the Wallace Kaye case and it sort of unraveled," Collins said. "We then realized that this was the MeToo movement back then that never really spurred into a movement and just fizzled out. So we thought that this case was very important because it's part of a history of how the MeToo movement could have started back then and so many people could have benefitted from it back then as opposed to now."
Collins said that SAG knew about most of such cases but it did nothing to prevent these cyclical sexual assault incidents from occurring. And when he approached the film union for some sort of explanation, no one from the organization was ready to appear for an interview to present their side.
"All these actors were going to SAG to tell them that they were being attacked and they had no protection in the forms of agents and directors. These actors, once they were assaulted, went to SAG as it is part of the union, and SAG knew about all these cases. It kept compiling cases on cases that kept coming in but they failed to do something to prevent these instances from happening."
"We wanted a background on why SAG didn't help these actors. So we went to them and said you knew about these cases and we would love to have someone come and talk to us on camera and explain what happened. We went to them many times, we wrote them emails. And they never got back, we kept asking but they just never came through and didn't even want to touch on the subject," Collins said.
The film concludes with a stark question of whether stifling such sexual assault cases was a big cover-up by Hollywood as Wallace Kaye's case received significant media attention but died down eventually without any concrete steps being taken. When asked Collins, he said that "everything points to the fact that there could have been a cover-up."
"With Wallace Kaye's case, it was on 60 Minutes, it made headlines and nothing happened. A part of the reason why SAG didn't act either was maybe because there was a cover-up. Hollywood is gigantic so there are a lot of powerful people in the industry. I think it's possible that there could have been people saying 'hey, let's just sweep this under the carpet and let's not cause any waves and if we did certain things to make it go away we can continue to keep doing things as we are doing,'" he said.
"So I think it took a lot of people to come out and make the public aware of what's going on. Now we have social media, it's hard to cover-up such things. You can't shut down Twitter or Facebook. It's easier to spread awareness now," the director added.