ON OCT. 15, 1991, JUST AS THE U.S SENATE was voting to confirm Clarence Thomas as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, Nick Nolte was having some old-fashioned fun on the Pittsburgh set of Lorenzo's Oil. Due out in December, the film is about parents who fight the medical establishment to find a cure for their desperately ill son. Nolte was watching his costar, Susan Sarandon, straddling a violently shaking pole intended to help a child actor simulate a seizure. Then he chuckled and said, "That's some vibrator you've got between your legs."

A clear-cut case of sexual harassment? In the movie industry, where on-the-job raunchiness is often taken for granted, the answer, most insiders would agree, is no. Not only do actors and actresses frequently work in various states of undress, sometimes simulating intimate acts for hours on end, but the director and crew also can become part of a temporary "family" that gets awfully close-knit awfully fast. After a while, "you develop what I call abuse immunity," says Devorah Cutler, a writer-director who is a former executive of Columbia television.

Yet even in Hollywood, where the lines between friendly flirtation and inappropriate pressure can blur, a come-on can be, distinctly, a crime. On Oct. 7 the Burbank police arrested Wallace Kaye, 52, owner of a small Burbank talent agency, for molesting a policewoman who had been posing as a would-be actress. The four-month sting operation stemmed from a single complaint by a former Kaye client, but since his arrest several other aspiring actresses have stepped forward to say they were similarly abused by the agent. According to police detective David Gabriel, Kaye would start out interviewing these women about their career goals and then wind up "restraining them, removing their clothing and fondling their private parts."

To the high rollers in Hollywood, both Kaye, who has been charged with several counts of sexual battery and false imprisonment, and his alleged victims are unknown—fringe figures at their glamorous industry's dimmest margins. Yet ask many female stars today, and they will tell you that at one time or another they too have encountered some form of sexual harassment. "It happened to me when I was quite young," says Sarandon, 46. "The first time, I was so stunned, but you get an education. After the second time, you learn how to avoid it."

Today, a year after the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas confrontation raised the nation's awareness of sexual harassment, many women in show business bristle at the destructive sexual attitudes they see not only at the box office but too often in the boss' office as well. "There is a kind of Neanderthal swing back to tits and ass," says Cutler. "It's different today than in the '70s, when we had the feminist reaction. We've slid back." One reason, she says, is that with the recession hitting even Hollywood, no one wants to rock the boat. "When there is less money and fewer jobs, the courage factor goes down."

As actress Christine Lahti, 42, sees it, the film business has regressed merely by staying the same. "Women are in movies for their sexuality more than anything else," she says. "They are judged on how they look, not what they've done or what they think." Lahti had what might be called a traditional introduction to the business. As a 25-year-old unknown, she was told by a Manhattan casting director that he would be happy to get her parts in commercials—to be directed, she later learned, by his friends—with no need to audition. "Slowly it dawned on me," she says, "that this guy was pimping for his friends, and I was expected to sleep with them if I wanted to do the commercials." When Lahti refused, the casting director shot back, "You're a fool. You're not gorgeous. You're not special. You have no connections in this business. How else are you going to get ahead?"

Then—and now, many actresses say—it is the young up-and-comers who receive the brunt of the sexual pressure. "Somebody 18 or 20 years old, what do they know?" asks Donna Mills, 48, who, when starting out more than 20 years ago in New York City, was asked to read soft-core porn for the titillation of one agent and to take off her blouse by another. (She refused both requests.) "There are a lot of sleazes around. If the girls don't go along with them, they don't gel called again." New York City-based actress Kaitlin Hopkins—Kelsey Harrison on the NBC soap Another World—also understands the predicament. Four years ago, when she was pitching a screenplay to a producer in Los Angeles and he suggested they continue the conversation over dinner, Hopkins, then 24, wavered before agreeing. "I saw a photo of his wife and child on his desk," she says, "and I thought, 'He's a decent family man.' " She was wrong. During dinner he expressed interest in her script—but seemed even more eager to discuss her looks. By the time they got back to his car, she says, he was pushing himself on her physically. "I remember thinking, 'If I let him kiss me, he'll think that's OK, which I don't want. But if I don't let him kiss me, what's going to happen with the project?' "

Hopkins turned him down—and blamed herself for accepting the dinner invitation. She did not gel the project rolling, nor did she ever file a complaint. "I was so desperate for work," she explains. "I didn't want anybody to think I was a bitch."

Unfortunately a willingness to tolerate the intolerable is often considered a necessary aspect of showbiz survival. Several years ago, recounts Christine Lahti, at a business meeting in the office of a star actor-director, she found herself feeling increasingly uncomfortable. "He kept making jokes about what he wished would happen between us," says Lahti. "He made me feel horrible, and I, of course, giggled and laughed and looked away. I left the office hating him but hating myself more for allowing it to happen," she says. "But I needed the job."

Surprisingly, young actors often find themselves in the same position as young actresses. As Gregory Harrison of Trapper John, M.D. tells it, a female casting director in L.A. once told him she thought he had potential and invited him to her home to read some scripts. "In fact," he says, "she said if I dropped by in the evening I could take a Jacuzzi with her." He declined, offering instead to meet her at her office the following morning. Says Harrison: "She got this dark cloud over her face and said, 'No, that's quite all right. I'll be back in touch with you.' "

She did not call back. Several months later, he says, she moved on to a job at a network where he later came up for an important series role. The producers offered him the part. But within hours after he accepted, he got a call informing him the network had vetoed their choice. The explanation, he recalls: "Somebody there doesn't like you." "You can't prove they are not hiring you because you didn't say yes to their sexual advances," says Harrison. "But I still have never worked for that woman."

Those who dole out the jobs aren't the only people in Hollywood who play fast and loose with sex. Aspiring actors and actresses—and some established ones too—are not beyond offering their bodies as part of the deal. "Even if you're going in for a role as a lawyer," says Cutler, "you want to show some leg." Actors "are always coming on," says casting director Mary Jo Slater, mother of actor Christian Slater. Once, she recalls, a man she had interviewed sent her a red negligee, which she promptly returned. "That was the most obvious one," she says. "Usually it's something like flowers. In this business, everyone is out to get something."

Or to avoid something—like ridicule. Men, observes one actress, "won't talk about being sexually harassed because they're afraid of being ridiculed. Their buddies will say, 'Why didn't you lake her right there on the couch?' " And women, says Sarandon, "are trained to complete people's sentences for them—not to sue for harassment."

Donna Mills, for one, thinks it's high time to retrain. "Twenty years ago," she says, "no one would talk about it." Now Mills is ready to speak out. Her message to the next generation of aspiring actors and actresses: "No one ever got to be a star by f——g somebody. It just doesn't happen."

KAREN S. SCHNEIDER
LOIS ARMSTRONG in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Lois Armstrong.