Saturday, January 20, 2007

Who Stands for This CHILD?

Guest Columnist: Paul Petersen

Pretending Leads to Reality
(photo curtesy of

It now appears Dakota Fanning was wearing a flesh-tone body suit (or a two piece suit) when she acted out the rape scene in "Hound Dog." Defenders of the production company were silent for two weeks when the controversy erupted, and now offer up this "cover up," days later, as proof that they were, in fact, concerned about the propriety of wardrobe worn in this rape scene using the talents of a twelve year-old child. These same voices are silent about what Dakota was wearing when she filmed the mutual masturbation scene. I keep pointing out to these people that it wasn't what Dakota was wearing, but what she was doing!

Allow me to explain why I'm so concerned over this betrayal of what it means to be a child and the risks unique to kid actors:

I have maintained for years that the key to the skills of the stand-out child actor, that kid whose ability to portray a range of emotions that audiences find irresistible, is most often a result of a dysfunctional home life where the child's ability to manipulate the emotions and attitudes of the adults in the house…or siblings for that matter…is actually a survival skill. When you are born into a home with problems, you learn to cope. The decision to allow Dakota Fanning, a pre-teen, to participate in sexual situations filmed for commercial purposes does not bode well for the future when the certain effects of this decision begin to weigh on the real-life person inside the actress.

An abundance of young performers come from fractured backgrounds, from homes that have seen divorce, substance abuse, and financial setbacks, homes led by adults who have been described as undisciplined dreamers who have a fascination with the world of escapist entertainment. The reality of some homes is that they are emotional mine fields. The growth and development of the exceptional child born of difficult circumstances…orphaned at four, sent to live with draconian relatives, marooned on a deserted island…dramatic devices used from Tarzan to Oliver, is a story-telling device that resonates with everyone.

The Historical Reality of performers of a tender age is rooted in the ancient caste system. Performers breed other performers…whether you are talking about India and their two-thousand year-old caste of jugglers and magicians, or the Vienna Boys Choir (actually called the castrati, with all that implies) and dear Beethoven born to a lesser musician-father, or the vaudevillian families like the famous Little Foys or the hoofers that reared Jackie Coogan. In these families there were traditions and vast experience that armored the talented child and provided better guidance for life in The Biz. Show Folk are, in fact, unique.

The problems that have become so cliché, former kid star in trouble, or dead…is a fairly recent phenomenon…. and its causes can in some instances be traced to the sudden emergence of a Star Child in a family devoid of any coping skills for the consequences of life in the performing arts. The Hollywood Dream of being discovered in the malt shop is less than one hundred years old.

So, what can young performers…kid actors in particular…teach us? What is it about their experience that has relevance to the civilian world in which most of you live and work?

I will begin with what I hope will be an illuminating story about the mind of the young…and how the natural in-born ability to believe in "twelve impossible things" like the Red Queen is an integral part of a young performer's interior growth and development.

In 1956, at age ten, I auditioned for a role on Ford Television Theater. The part was to portray a child who has to watch his father get hanged. There was gut-wrenching dialogue as this boy witnesses the hanging, nearly a half-page monologue with tears indicated. I got the part, even endured the process of getting what we call a Flipper to make sure that my gap-toothed grin was masked because I was playing John Derek as a boy. The dramatic device was, of course, to give insight to John Derek's subsequent adult behavior. Everybody with me so far?

It's a part…a juicy actor's part…and I got it. Do you know why? Because I saw the noose, saw my father swinging by his neck until dead, and the words written for me flowed out of me as freely as my tears. Even on the audition in a room full of worn out casting people I saw and felt exactly what the writer needed. When I actually filmed this traumatic scene the impact was even more powerful, for now I was surrounded by a starkly lit prison window with bars I could cling to, and there was the shadow of the noose swinging on a wall…and I was, if anything, better than I was on the audition.

A man who would later play a role in my hiring on The Donna Reed Show watched me that evening in 1956 and would later become a most unlikely friend, Harry Cohn…King Cohn, owner of Columbia Pictures, the most hated man in Show Business…or so they said. On the night we filmed my scene in "Black Jim Hawke" this cigar-smoking man came up to me and said, "It's hard to make a movie crew applaud, kid. Did ya really see your father swingin' in that noose?"

"Sure," I replied. "Didn't I make you see him, too?" Harry Cohn chuckled and nodded his head. "Yes you did."

My friends, it's fifty years later and I still remember that event, not as an actor's moment, but as a ten year-old boy witnessing his father's death by hanging with all the internal drama, the sense of abandonment, fear for my mother 'left poor behind,' and I am to this day affected by that memory, which my rational self tells me was just pretend, but my heart knows was real. Such is the young person's rich internal life.

I am trying to tell you that for a gifted child actor asked to portray a difficult emotionally loaded scene that over time there is NO difference between reality and pretend. In order to convince an audience to suspend disbelief you must, internally, believe utterly in the character and event you are portraying. That's the gift…and the curse.

Complicating this "fact" is the continuing reaction of the audience who are also left believing…and continues to believe…that what they experienced in the theater was and IS real far into the future. Do I have to explain the distortions of memory over time?

If you don't believe my words, please consider Jodi Foster portraying the young prostitute in "Taxi Driver." Jodi's unforgettable performance as "Iris" has become so mythologized over the past 30 years that most people believe absolutely that they saw Jodi Foster at 12 years-old fully naked and physically engaged in on-camera sex. Martin Scorsese's powerful direction created that impression, but if you review this film you'll see that your "impression" of nudity and sex does not square with the actual film footage.

This mistaken impression is what Jodi has had to learn to live with…as well as the unwelcome fact that the image of "Iris" remains one of the favorite images of pedophiles all over the world.

When you're young, Invisible Friends are real. There are monsters under the bed. Perhaps you have forgotten how intensely you felt things in third and fourth grade when a casual insult cut you to the quick, but at the time, my friends, it was real. So are fighting parents and toys your family can't afford. Some people, especially those who are cut off from sympathetic support systems, cannot endure the time it takes for wounds to heal, or wait for perceptions of past emotional events to evolve.

And I'm not so sure we ever get old enough to deal with these assaults on our senses. The cumulative load of what Jules Ffiefer called "Little Murders" are, for some people, simply unbearable and they can see no way out…no tomorrow, no recovery. For some people, the only clear and unambiguous message that can cut through the pain is to end it all…death of Self as a tactic.

Over the course of my life I have been asked several times if I ever thought about suicide…asked by family members, friends, and interviewers. My response has always been, "Hell no. I want to see how the movie comes out." Too glib by half, I know, but I'm a Hollywood Kid. What can you do?

In the shallow underbelly of Hollywood where I now spend so much time I see hopelessness in the lives of those former kid stars now estranged from show business again and again…nearly always coming from people, young and old, male and female, who have isolated themselves from human contact and particularly that contact which comes from the fellowship of a working environment, or rather an environment of common interests…such as a school, or what we call the extended family…and particularly the community of show folk.

Nobody knows where Dakota Fanning will be in fifteen or twenty years. Odds are heavily stacked against a sustained career in the Business for anyone. What we can be certain of, based on the work Dakota has already done, is that her name and image will never go away. Never. And now that image will carry the baggage of her participation in a movie that, if exhibited, will almost certainly result in the criminal prosecution of the major players involved.

You are kidding yourself if you think this is only a movie. You do not have to be Edgar Cayce to foresee the potential for disaster. The internal workings of a child on the threshold of womanhood who has been raped…and raped for public consumption…cannot be predicted, nor can her encounters with people exposed to that image be guaranteed to be in any way "uplifting."

In the end, you see, it will not matter how we deal with this rat's nest, but how Dakota Fanning comes to terms with what was done to her.

That's as real as it gets.

Paul Petersen

For more information about child performer advocacy, visit A Minor Consideration.

(Reprinted with permission. This editorial first appeared on

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Standing Up When Everyone Else is Sitting on Their Hands


Say what you like about Oprah, but there are times when her ability to stand up for those who cannot stand for themselves always impresses me. I'm sure her publicist has something to say about each of her choices, but seeing a need (as most of us do) and doing something to fill that need (something most of us don't do) are two different things. In a recent story reported by Denis Farell/AP, Oprah Winfrey opened the doors of her $40 million South Africa "leadership academy," giving 152 impoverished young women a shot at a brighter future. "Students, who are all from South Africa and can be of any race, have been chosen based on factors ranging from financial hardship (the girls' families must have a household monthly income below $700) to compelling personal histories."

Of course, we here in the United States welcomed her back home with a wall of criticism wondering why she sends so much of her own money overseas when plenty of U.S. schools could use the support. We're always quick to criticize others when what they do shines a light on what we're NOT doing. Our job is to stand for the children placed in our care, and to do it to the best of our ability. Oprah doesn't have children of her own. Her quote says it all. "I now know this is why I never had children myself. These are my girls, and I love them, every one of them. This is the proudest, greatest day of my life. When you educate a girl, you educate a family, a community - you change the face of a nation."

This is a powerful statement, one I pray parents of girls will consider strongly. Teach your daughters well! Let's not worry about what others do and don't do for children. Make sure you stand strong for your children and hopefully they won't need an Oprah in their life later to stand for them. But I'm glad when there's no one else around Oprah and those like her take a step forward to stand in the gap.

For those of you who have daughters, I love this song by John Mayer. Enjoy!