This all probably sounds familiar in the post #MeToo, #TimesUp world, but this story happened well before Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby were outed for their reprehensible behaviour towards women. The assaults in question took place between 1991 and 1993 but it’s probably a story you’ve never heard. Why is that? Well, that’s the question that Minh Collins sets out to answer in his documentary ROCKING THE COUCH.
The ‘couch’ in question is, of course, the ‘casting couch’ the meaning of which, in case we didn’t know, is explained to us by actress Kim Johnston Ulrich along with a little bit of history about the term and its use in old Hollywood (apparently it was first used in an article in Variety in 1937). But, unlike most of the women in this documentary, Kim’s not here to share her story of falling victim to Wallace Kaye. She’s here as the wife of a Casting Director to reassure us that her husband and the majority of male Casting Directors today don’t behave like Kaye, but are honourable respectful men. It’s a curious, seemingly redundant moment in the documentary, but it’s not the only one.
A substantial part of this film’s short running time (65 minutes) is devoted to material that, at best, is peripheral to the supposed thrust of the subject matter. We have ‘LA Criminal Defence Attorney’ Stephen G Rodriguez popping up every ten minutes or so to provide definitions of the relevant laws and terminology, and to make the distinction between sexual assault (which is a crime) and sexual harassment (which is not).
And if you’re wondering why we get so much focus on Rodriguez when he seems to have no connection to the Kaye case, then perhaps it’s explained when his name pops up in the credits as one of the film’s producers. Or there’s ‘actor/producer/writer Pritesh Shah who gets enough screentime to tell us that he’s been propositioned many times by aspiring actresses (some of them married!) who’ll do anything (anything!) to get into his next film. Of course, he never takes advantage, but the point that some women go looking for this treatment is made. And finally, there’s the decidedly strange inclusion of several spots devoted to an executive producer named Ikon Barenbolm (shot in a bar with a glass of wine in hand) who tells us, amongst other things, that some women make these kinds of accusations in order to gain notoriety or for revenge or for other reasons that have nothing to do with actual assaults. Perhaps these moments are there in the interests of balance, but to my eye they serve to do little more than undercut the genuine stories from the many courageous women who confront the cameras to reveal their distressing experiences to us.
Ostensibly, it’s these women’s stories that the film is meant to be about, inorder to expose the details of the Wallace Kaye case and ask why it didn’t garner more public outcry and galavanise Hollywood to act against this kind of professionalised sexual misconduct twenty-five years ago; why it took the Weinstein and Cosby cases to prompt some sort of positive action. Much of the blame is laid at the feet of the Screen Actors’ Guild for its reluctance to act or respond to the accusations made against Kaye and for the general industry disinterest in addressing the issue. But, in the end, Rocking the Couch doesn’t really offer much in the way of analysis or insight. Instead, what we’re offered are the often graphic testimonials of women who encountered this kind of sexually predatorial behaviour from Kaye and others, often illustrated with stock footage and recreations of intimate situations and scantily clad women that seem to undermine their stories with imagery that’s more titillating that informative.
This, combined with so much irrelevant, peripheral information and the inclusion of voices that suggest that some women might make this stuff up, brings nothing new to the table with regard to an important and very current social and political issue. Instead of adding to the argument, it takes advantage of it, using footage of both Weinstein and Cosby as a kind of springboard for its own benefit and, in doing so, misses the opportunity to bring some kind of benefit to the movement that would see these stories be more like that of Wallace Kaye – a thing of the past.