THE CASTING COUCH PATH TO FAME IS AS OLD AS THE FILM INDUSTRY, WRITE SARAH BLAKE AND MAREA DONNELLY
Tinseltown’s insidious sexploitation of actors
The term casting couch has been around so long it almost seems quaint. It tells of a young performer — almost always a woman — who sexually “auditions” for a role, almost always with a powerful older man.
Joan Collins wrote that she missed out on the title role in 1963s Cleopatra, which went to Elizabeth Taylor, because she wouldn’t sleep with the boss of the studio.
“I had tested for Cleopatra twice and was the frontrunner. He took me into his office and said, ‘You really want this part?’ And I said, ‘Yes. I really do.’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘then all you have to do is be nice to me.’ It was a wonderful euphemism in the ’60s for you know what,” she said.
“But I couldn’t do that. In fact, I was rather wimpish, burst into tears and rushed out of his office.”
The most famous sex symbol of all, Marilyn Monroe, talked scathingly in her memoir My Story about her encounters with lecherous filmmakers and studio chiefs, saying they treated Hollywood as “an overcrowded brothel”.
“I met them all. Phoniness and failure were all over them. Some were vicious and crooked. But they were as near to the movies as you could get,” she wrote.
“So you sat with them, listening to their lies and schemes. And you saw Hollywood with their eyes — an overcrowded brothel, a merry-go-round with beds for horses.”
Studio boss Darryl Zanuck, who groomed a young Norma Jeane Baker into Marilyn, also had a reputation for interviewing starstruck young hopefuls wearing only his dressing gown. He was notoriously “in conference” with aspiring actors every day between 4pm and 4.30pm.
Other Hollywood pioneers considered “notorious lechers” include Harry Cohn, who had held casting sessions for Columbia Pictures from 1919 to the 1950s, MGM fixer Eddie Mannix and his assistant Benny Thau, named as owning “the busiest casting couch in Hollywood”.
The worst offender was MGM chief Louis B. Mayer, according to author Gerald Clark. Mayer, who preferred family movies, would fondle Judy Garland’s breasts as the 16-year-old sat on his lap.
Child-star Shirley Temple described her shock when MGM producer Arthur Freed exposed himself during a meeting with her in 1941, when she was 11, shortly after she signed with that studio.
Film mogul Howard Hughes was noted for affairs with Ava Gardner, Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis and Ginger Rogers, but also had a “secret” house near his home to conduct interviews with would-be starlets. The infamous case of filmmake r Roman Polanski, who pleaded guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse with then13-year-old aspiring actor Samantha Geimer, has still not been fully resolved. Polanski plied Geimer with champagne and the drug Quaaludes during a 1977 LA photo shoot.
Polanski fled the US before sentencing and is still wanted by judicial authorities.
British actor Lesley-Anne Down described arriving in Hollywood in 1975 aged 21, when a film executive invited her to share popcorn from a box, where she felt his erect penis. She said: “If 1 per cent of what was being perpetrated on actresses back then was punished, the entire male film industry would have been in jail for a minimum of 12 years.”
In 2013 actress Thandie Newton revealed at age18 she had a screen test with a director and a female casting director. The director asked “to sit with my legs apart – the camera was positioned where it could see up my skirt – to put my leg over the arm of the chair”, then read dialogue and imagine “how it felt to be made love to by this person”.
In 2009, Transformers star Megan Fox said leading film directors made sexual propositions while casting for film roles.
Some argue harassment of women is endemic in films as so much of the industry is based on the fact that sex sells.
“Sexual harassment in Hollywood has a history as long as that of the industry itself: the industry was built, in part, on female harassment behind the scenes, female objectification in front of the cameras, with the use of celebrity gossip to both titillate and forewarn about the so-called ‘casting couch’,” says Redlands University’s Kathleen Feeley.
Although Weinstein’s unmasking has created shockwaves, any lasting change will be hard fought.
If 1 per cent of offences were punished, the male film industry would be in jail Lesley-Anne Down
Hollywood Blvd, and (far left, from top) Marilyn Monroe, Samantha Geimer, Judy Garland, and Louis B. Mayer.