Furor Over 12-Year-Old Fanning's Rape Scene
The New York Times
January 22, 2007
"There are so many children that this happens to, every second. If anyone’s talking about anything, that’s what they should be talking about," Fanning said.LOS ANGELES (Jan. 22) — Dakota Fanning will turn 13 next month, and she has a short answer for anyone who questions her decision to play a 1950s girl who gyrates in her underwear, wakes up as her naked father climbs into her bed, demands that a prepubescent boy expose himself to her in exchange for a kiss and, finally, is raped by a teenager who lures her with tickets to an Elvis concert:
She’s growing up. Get used to it.
Ms. Fanning, best known for leading roles in children’s movies like “Dreamer” and “Charlotte’s Web,” thrillers like “Man on Fire” and “War of the Worlds,” and the horror film “Hide and Seek,” now is starring in “Hounddog,” an independent film that is to have its premiere on Monday at the Sundance Film Festival. It has already won attention far out of proportion to its budget of less than $4 million.
When “Hounddog” was still shooting last summer near Wilmington, N.C., rumors about the rape scene kicked up a storm on the socially conservative end of the Web spectrum. Some suggested that Ms. Fanning was being exploited by the filmmakers, her parents and her agent. Hundreds signed a petition to persuade a local district attorney to prosecute the filmmakers under a law banning simulated sex with a minor.
The furor hampered the production, and it continues on Fox News and on Web sites like A Minor Consideration (minorcon.org), run by Paul Petersen, an advocate for child actors. Mr. Petersen, himself a former child actor who played Donna Reed’s son on her 1960s sitcom, said in an interview that Ms. Fanning should never have been allowed to play the victim in a rape scene, no matter how much she wanted to or how sensitively it was filmed, and that her doing so violated the letter of federal child-pornography law.
“Nothing excuses it,” he said. “The plain cold fact is this is illegal, the statutes are what they are, and Hollywood chose to ignore it. If they’d made the character 15, and hired a 19-year-old, they wouldn’t have heard a peep out of me.”
But the Wilmington district attorney, who was shown a cut of the movie, said no crime was committed, and the film’s writer and director, Deborah Kampmeier, said Ms. Fanning was treated more than appropriately: Though her character, Lewellen, disrobes under duress, for example, she is not seen nude, and Ms. Fanning was always clothed during the production.
Ms. Fanning, for her part, says she is mystified by the outcry. Anyone who sees the film, she said on Monday in her first interview on the subject, would understand that the rape scene wasn’t the point of the movie.
“That’s not who Lewellen is,” she said, sitting in her agent’s office in Universal City, braces on her teeth and a small crucifix over her sweater. “Because that has happened to her, that doesn’t define her. Because of this thing that has happened — that she did not ask for — she is labeled that, and it’s her story to overcome that and to be a whole person again.”
“There are so many children that this happens to, every second,” she added. “That’s the sad part. If anyone’s talking about anything, that’s what they should be talking about.”
Her mother, Joy Fanning, waited outside, and her agent, Cindy Osbrink, sat in, but it was Ms. Fanning who fielded the questions, and who made clear that her choices were, well, just that.
“You know, I’m an actress,” she said. “It’s what I want to do, it’s what I’ve been so lucky to have done for almost seven years now. And I am getting older. February 23 is my birthday, I’ll be 13 years old. And I will be playing different kinds of roles. I won’t be able to do the things I did when I was 6 years old when I’m 14. And that’s what I look forward to — getting to play new roles that aren’t too old for me and aren’t too young for me, that are just at the right time.”
She added: “Lewellen is still very innocent, she’s still a child, but she’s also a little bit wise beyond her years because of the things she’s seen and been through. So I think that I should be able to do what I feel is at the right time for me.”
The story of “Hounddog” is about not just rape but also about the cycle of violence: nearly every major character in it is motherless, wounded, repressed and destructive. Lewellen’s grandmother (Piper Laurie) violates her too, if only with her eyes; her father (David Morse) has been abusing her more directly, and it appears likely that, if nothing changes, Lewellen will become an abuser too.
Ms. Kampmeier said in a telephone interview that she had originally written the character as a 9-year-old, and first signed the actors Robin Wright Penn and Mr. Morse for the project in the late 1990s. But a succession of financial backers withdrew four times in four years, and she set the script aside in 2002 to make “Virgin,” her first feature, about a pregnant girl who believes that she is carrying God’s child; Ms. Wright Penn played the girl’s mother in the film, which received mixed reviews.
When Ms. Kampmeier sent Ms. Fanning the script for “Hounddog” in July 2005, Ms. Fanning said: “The bottom line was, I couldn’t not do it. It’s all I could think about. I knew I was at the perfect age.”
She had to wait nine months as Ms. Kampmeier hunted for investors; the subject matter remained objectionable to most, even with a proven star in the central role, the director said. (Making the most of that delay, Ms. Fanning said, the director sent her an e-mail message with a new question about Lewellen each morning: Favorite color? Favorite food? “That’s why I was so comfortable in Lewellen’s skin,” Ms. Fanning said, “because I knew so much about her.”)
Ms. Kampmeier said investors kept balking at the rape scene, demanding that it be shunted off-screen, merely implied or removed from the plot altogether.
About the online petitions to have her arrested, she said that the district attorney’s office in Wilmington was busy prosecuting real sex crimes, like one in which a 10-year-old girl was impregnated by her father. “All these cases are reported in the newspaper, and nobody ever calls them about that,” she said. “But they get 10 to 20 calls a day from people insisting that my movie be prosecuted.”
Ms. Fanning said the most taxing scene for her was one in which her sleeping character is covered by snakes that slither in through the open window of her tumbledown shack.
But it may be an earlier pivotal scene that draws more critical attention, should “Hounddog” find a distributor. In it Lewellen sings and dances her best Elvis impression — horizontally, on her bed — upon learning that the singer is coming to town. While she does, however, a teenage milkman is in the room, looking on a little too hungrily.
Overly sexual behavior in minors is often a telltale sign of prior abuse, and provocation is, unfortunately, in the eye of the provoked. But to Ms. Kampmeier’s mind, and more important, to Ms. Fanning’s, Lewellen’s dancing in this scene is as innocent as her already corrupted life can get.
“She’s 12 years old,” Ms. Fanning said. “She’s doing that because that’s fun. She’s not going so far as to think, ‘Oh, am I doing something wrong?’ or ‘Is this going to look in a weird way?’ He’s just her milkman. He’s coming to pick up the empties.”
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