When 31-year-old Michael Egan III brought a lawsuit against X-Men: Days of Future Past director Bryan Singer in April of this year, it set off a slew of salacious tabloid stories. Egan alleged that Singer and other powerful Hollywood men, as part of an underground sex ring, drugged and raped the aspiring actor when he was an underage teenager. He described sketchy parties held at the M&C Estate, a mansion owned by now-convincted sex offender Marc Collins-Rector and his partner Chad Shackey.
The way that the story played out over the summer was through the lens of lawsuits and other legal matters. Singer and others hit back hard, with pit-bull lawyer Marty Singer, and credibility-ruining documents were leaked to places like BuzzFeed, where Egan was quoted under oath as saying that he didn’t travel to Hawaii, the state where he filed this civil lawsuit, as the statute of limitations has run out on the case (the liable action occurred around 1998, when Egan was a teenager). Refusing to settle with Singer, Egan withdrew his suit in August when he was dropped by his lawyers. He still has the option of refiling, if someone will take on his case.
Egan is one of a chorus in An Open Secret, Amy Berg’s documentary about cases of child sexual abuse in Hollywood, which focuses on the parties at Collins-Rector’s house and the behavior of Marty Weiss, a talent manager who has been accused and convicted of abuse. Berg interviews a slew of young men who were targeted by predatory men with power in Hollywood, as managers and executives. A film that’s been mired in controversy since its inception, it premiered at DOC NYC on Friday night, in what could end up being its one and only screening. This is not a reflection of its quality by any means — it’s a good film — but more due to the fact that distributors won’t touch it. After all, men like Bryan Singer make billions of dollars for corporations.
And there is the feeling that An Open Secret‘s structure has, likely, changed with the ups and downs of Egan’s lawsuit. In a Q&A after the screening, Berg mentioned that they conducted the bulk of interviews with Egan before this summer’s lawsuit — they weren’t aware of it until a year and a half into filming. The film feels less shocking as a cult-of-celebrity document and more just quietly horrifying, as it details the trauma and the abuse of power inflicted on young men with stars in their eyes. In some ways, it’s as if Egan’s lawsuit has taken some of the air out of An Open Secret, at least on the level that we’re delving into it and the salacious tales that it contains; they don’t look the same, seen this way.
What’s important about An Open Secret is the human face it puts on survivors of abuse. Berg gets brave and terrifying testimony from aspiring singer Evan H. about his relationship with Marty Weiss. The older man was his manager, but as Evan and his parents put it, he was more like family, and in grainy home videos we see Weiss welcomed into the home, participating in holiday parties and cookouts. Weiss was grooming Evan H. It makes the recounting of his abuse even more disgusting.
The other side of the film delves into Collins-Rector’s parties. They were druggy, hazy, and demanded that everyone there was “naked.” One young man gave a deposition that he passed out and ended up naked and disoriented in Collins-Rector’s bed. (His wording sounded very similar to the suit that Kesha brought against Dr. Luke this summer, actually.) It’s not just Michael Egan (Mike E. in this film), who has stories about being approached and violated by the men in this culture. Mark R., a friend of Egan, was another victim of these parties, and as a result, his life veered off course, in a tragic fashion.
While An Open Secret focuses, specifically, on cases that involve men who prey on children, Berg’s addressing the tip of an iceberg. (In fact, a longer version of this film could discuss the abuse perpetuated against young women, the role of the casting couch, etc.; it could be very long.) The resulting film is emotionally believable — there’s case after case of similar trauma, similar grooming, and eerily similar language — while also presenting illegal actions that, for reasons that become clear, are too often inadequately addressed (if not entirely ignored) by the legal system. The most devastating moment in the film happens in the end, when you see how these men got away with their crimes — moving to different countries, avoiding even financial payouts — while their victims have to live with the trauma.
Even worse? Some of these convinced sex offenders are still in the entertainment industry. There’s something rotten in this culture, and it’s brave and admirable that a film like An Open Secret exists, so that people are speaking out against sexual abuse by those in power. Hopefully more people will be able to see it at some point — because it’s the type of work that should have the power to effect change in laws for child actors, and open up the eyes of parents who push their kids toward stardom. Instead, we live in a world where Bryan Singer is slated to direct the next X-Men movie.