Arnold Schwarzenneger, Don Johnson, Steven Seagal – just a handful of the Hollywood celebrities who have stood accused of sexual harassment in recent years. However, such allegations are nothing new in tinsel town. The use of the ‘casting couch’ by powerful male industry figures to extract sexual services from young female performers struggling to gain a foot hold in the business, has become something of a Hollywood tradition – stretching back to the silent era. According to leading film historian Kevin Brownwing – author of The Golden Grope – A History of Hollywood Harassment – famed silent comedian Charlie Chaplin was probably one of the first stars to make systematic use of the ‘casting couch’ for sexual gratification. “Apparently he would only communicate with the actresses he was ‘auditioning’ via caption cards and mime, supposedly to test their ability to ‘perform’ in silent movies,” says Brownwing. “The cards would become ever more lewd and suggestive as he got them to undress, and he would fondle their breasts in an exaggerated silent movie acting manner, silently conveying his growing sexual arousal through grotesque facial mugging and crudely mimed gestures. Eventually, he would get them to stand, naked, at one end of the audition room and throw custard pies at them. Finally, he would lick the girls clean with his tongue before making love to them on an actual casting couch, whilst a pianist played appropriate background music. He would insist that they ‘perform’ entirely in mime and if they cried out (as they inevitably did), he would tell them that they had failed the audition!”
The ‘little tramp’ would inevitably conduct the auditions in full costume, including false toothbrush moustache and bowler hat, only removing the latter when he came. He would also frequently use his trademark walking stick to perform increasingly obscene mimes – simulating masturbation and other unspeakably vile sexual acts. “Some of the actresses were reportedly disappointed that his baggy, low slung trousers did not, in fact, conceal a huge member, but that he was actually quite modestly endowed,” claims the film historian, musing that Chaplin’s perceived inadequacies in the trouser department may have lain behind his appalling treatment of women. “He was immensely jealous of rival comedians Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, both of whom were hung like donkeys and never had to resort to Chaplin’s casting couch antics.” With the advent of talkies, Chaplin found himself unable to employ his bizarre ‘casting’ techniques and instead had to other avenues by which to pester young women. Sadly, his poor speaking voice meant that his attempts to establish himself as an anonymous obscene phone caller ultimately came to nothing, and his career as one of Hollywood’s top sexual harassers was effectively over.
As revealed in Brownwing’s book, it was not just aspiring actresses who were subjected to humiliating ordeals in order to secure advancement. “Whilst it is quite well-known that the young Clarke Gable engaged in oral sex with fellow MGM player William Haines in order to establish himself at the studio, less well known are legendary hard man John Wayne’s use of casting sessions to seduce up and coming young male contract players,” claims Brownwing. “During the 1940s the outwardly conservative and heterosexual Wayne would regularly attend screen tests with director John Ford, in order to size up potential conquests. He’d get Ford to order the young hopefuls to take off their shirts and enact scenes which required them to lift heavy objects or bend over a lot.” When he’d picked out his likely targets, Wayne would arrange for Ford to call them back to the studio – usually late at night – for a bogus final screen test. Instead of the director and a camera crew, the bewildered young actors would find themselves alone in an otherwise deserted studio with an amourous Wayne, who would typically be clad only in a Stetson and a pair of pearl handled Colt .45s holstered on his gunbelt.
This seduction technique proved surprisingly successful for ‘The Duke’ – his conquests allegedly included Randolph Scott, Joel McCrea and Montgomery Clift, with whom he had a torrid affair during the making of Red River in 1948. Two other male stars to suffer unwanted attention were Rock Hudson and James Dean. “Elizabeth Taylor reportedly came on to them very strongly during the making of Giant, so they put out the rumour that they were both gay,” says Brownwing. “This proved so successful that Hudson kept up the gay pretence for years in order to ward off the attentions of notorious female sexual predators like Doris Day. He even hired male models to pose as his boyfriends.” So few people were aware of the truth that even a hooker who had slept with Rock tried to sell a story to the press claiming that she was so hot she’d turned Rock Hudson straight! Luckily, nobody believed her.
It was not only the stars who abused their positions in order to abuse impressionable young hopefuls – several top film directors also became notorious for their sordid activities. Heavyweight British suspense director Alfred Hitchcock is probably the most infamous of these. “He would invariably cast actresses of a certain type – young, blonde and beautiful like Grace Kelly, Eve Marie Saint and Tippi Hedren- in his films and then subject them to his own twisted sexual fantasies on screen,” asserts Brownwing. “He would always be devising scenes where they were tied up or brutally manhandled by villains. Cast and crew on several of his films have reported that he would become sexually aroused during the filming of such scenes – frequently drooling and gasping as his trousers strained to contain his huge erection. It has been alleged that during the filming of the sequence in The Birds where a helpless Tippi Hedren is attacked by crows and seagulls, he actually got his old man out and began to whack off – he became so excited that some people feared that he was about to suffer a heart attack. Finally, with a huge moan, he shouted ‘Cut!’ and ejaculated into a paper cup.”
Another Hollywood heavyweight, famed actor/director/producer/writer Orson Welles, also had a reputation for enjoying ‘close ups’ with young actresses. “Welles, a gifted amateur magician and notorious hoaxer, would often claim to have mystic healing powers, and would offer to cure impressionable budding actresses aches and pains by a ‘laying on of hands’ or an application of his specially prepared natural ointments. Invariably this would involve him groping their breasts and rubbing oil onto their buttocks, regardless of where the pain actually was,” explains Brownwing. “He would sometimes hypnotise such young women and instruct them to perform lewd acts for the amusement of himself and his cronies.” Brownwing’s book, The Golden Grope – A History of Hollywood Harassment, will be published by Little Dick Ltd in October, price £14.95.