Sex & Relationships

10 Most Notorious Sex Scandals in Hollywood History

We can learn a lot about shifting mores by charting the careers of those caught in the spotlight with their zippers down.

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When Swiss police apprehended director Roman Polanski (Chinatown, Rosemary's Baby) after he'd spent more than 30 years as a fugitive from justice, they couldn't have known that the arrest would set off a fiery international debate between those who see Polanski as an important cultural figure who is being persecuted, and those who can't believe that anyone would rush to the defense of a convicted child molester. His case serves as a handy reminder that sex scandals, from Fatty Arbuckle to Charlie Sheen, have always been part of the show-business circus, and that one can tell a lot about shifting mores by charting the careers of those caught in the spotlight with their zippers down.

1) THE STAR: Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, silent comedy star and director.

THE SCANDAL: On Labor Day weekend, 1921, the overworked Arbuckle treated himself to a holiday by checking into a hotel with a couple of male cronies and some women. One of them was Virginia Rappe, a 26-year-old aspiring starlet whom Arbuckle was said to have been lusting after. Two days later, Rappe checked into a hospital, where she died of complications from a ruptured bladder. Subsequently, a friend who had accompanied her to the party told police that Arbuckle had raped the girl, and Rappe's manager fanned the flames in the press. Various sources claimed Arbuckle had fatally injured Rappe by violating her with a Coke bottle, a chunk of ice, and/or himself.

Although police concluded there was no evidence that Rappe had been raped, the Hearst papers flogged the public into a fury. There were calls for Arbuckle's execution, and when he was finally charged with manslaughter, somebody took a shot at his estranged wife as she was entering the courtroom to show her support. After two mistrials, the third jury acquitted Arbuckle and presented him with a letter of apology.

THE FALLOUT: Arbuckle deserved his vindication, but he was considered toxic by the studios and his onscreen career was over. A few loyal friends got him jobs as a director (under the name William Goodrich), but he had begun to slip into alcoholism and declined rapidly, both on the set and off. Louise Brooks later described Arbuckle after the scandal as "very nice and sweetly dead."

2) THE STARS: Thomas Ince, pioneering filmmaker and independent studio chieftain; Charles Chaplin; Marion Davies, cuddly star of silent comedies and early talkies; and her paramour, newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst.

THE SCANDAL:In November 1924, Ince was taken ashore from Hearst's yacht, where he was one of the celebrity guests attending one of Hearst's floating parties. Soon he was dead, officially of a heart attack, and the body was quickly cremated and interred. Rumors quickly sprung up that Hearst had shot his guest, but that it was all a simple misunderstanding: he was actually gunning for Chaplin, because he suspected the beloved actor and notorious womanizer of scratching on Marion Davies. One story had it that Ince had interrupted Hearst just as he was about to murder Chaplin and that the gun went off as they struggled for it; another version had Hearst mistaking Ince for Chaplin as Ince sat chatting with Davies in the moonlight. Another of Hearst's guests, Louella Parsons, was supposedly rewarded for her silence with a lifetime contract as a writer for his papers, a position she used to promote Davies' movie career even as it was dying on the vine.

THE FALLOUT: Because of Ince's hasty burial and the confusion surrounding the whole mess, we'll probably never know for sure just what happened. Hearst inadvertently stoked the rumors through his own papers, which issued false reports about where and when Ince was supposedly taken ill and everything else to do with the case. Others aboard the yacht, including Chaplin and Davies, also lied about whether they'd even been there (maybe because many of the guests, Ince included, were spending the weekend with romantic partners other than their spouses), but Hearst's enemies were eager to assume the worst. Whatever happened, "the strange death of Thomas Ince" is now officially part of the Hearst mythology; an early draft of Citizen Kane referenced it, and in 2002, Peter Bogdanovich made a movie about it called The Cat's Meow. As for Ince, he was one of the men who built Hollywood, but he is best remembered for the manner of his death.

3) THE STAR: Errol Flynn, high-living action star of the 1930s and '40s.

THE SCANDAL: In 1942, a pair of underage girls charged Flynn with statutory rape. The star was picked up and tried for the crime early the next year.

THE FALLOUT: Reflecting the attitude of the times, Flynn's defense team basically argued, Yeah, he did it, wouldn't you? The high point of the trial came when Flynn's lawyer asked one of the girls if she hadn't wanted Flynn to undress her, and she replied, "I didn't have no objections." Because of the girls' ages, it shouldn't have mattered in the eyes of the law whether the sex was consensual or not, but given Flynn's rascally charisma, it apparently seemed that having any woman he liked was the movie star's honest due. Pearl Harbor had just been bombed; people had more important things to worry about. The jury quickly voted to acquit. Not only did the scandal have no negative effect on the star's career, it inspired U.S. serviceman to invent a new slang term designed to honor his sure-thing success with women: "In like Flynn."

4) THE STAR: Robert Mitchum, heavy-lidded writer, sometime calypso musician, and definitive practitioner of the "I'm just doing this movie-star shit until I win the lottery" style of acting.

THE SCANDAL: One night in 1948, Mitchum was arrested at a late-night house party in Laurel Canyon, after cops who'd staked out the place observed him smoking a joint. The circumstances of the arrest left many convinced that the whole thing was set up as a plan to blackmail Mitchum, a not-uncommon occurrence in the early decades of the studio system. If that was the idea, they seriously misjudged their target. Mitchum, as cooly sardonic in real life as the characters he played, shrugged, loped into the police station, and gave his occupation as "former actor," indicating that he saw the implosion of his career as one more bad joke the universe had pulled on him.

THE FALLOUT: Mitchum was sentenced to two months for possession and ambled off to do his time, amid industry speculation that he was finished in the movies. But the public loved seeing that their hero really was a bad boy with a bone-deep who-gives-a-shit attitude. The famous courtroom photo of Mitchum's "ain't that a bitch?" expression on receiving his sentence would become as much a part of his iconography as anything he ever did in a movie. He went through his two months in the jug as a regular prisoner and was greeted, upon his release, as if he'd just flown across the Atlantic Ocean by waving his arms. Technically not a sex scandal, but thanks to Mitchum's grace under pressure, a very sexy one.

5) THE STAR: Ingrid Bergman.

THE SCANDAL: In the 1940s, Bergman was one of the most-loved stars in America, partly because she struck so many people as a nice family girl who, in such movies as Notorious and Casablanca, was able to suggest a raving slut under the surface: what range! All that changed overnight when Bergman, who had a husband and a daughter, got pregnant by the Italian director Roberto Rossellini. People felt so personally betrayed that Colorado Senator Edwin C. Johnson took to the floor of the U.S. Senate to denounce Bergman as "a powerful influence for evil." It's hard when your favorite movie actress busts up her family for someone other than you.

THE FALLOUT: Bergman and Rossellini married in 1950; the marriage, which produced two daughters (including the actress Isabella Rossellini) ended in 1957. In 1956, Bergman won a Best Actress Oscar for Anastasia but tactfully sent Cary Grant to pick it up for her. When she appeared at the Academy Awards as a presenter the next year, the crowd gave her a standing ovation. Still, as late as her 1974 appearance in Murder on the Orient Express, many in the press felt the need to mention the way the country had turned its back on her, if only to note that the time had come to make amends. In her later years, all was forgiven, and the sense that she had been gravely wronged added a touch of nobility to her glamour.

6) THE STAR: Elizabeth Taylor, the Angelina of her day crossed with the Princess Diana of her day, with a little Paris Hilton thrown in for flavor.

THE SCANDAL: In 1957, Taylor, already twice divorced, exchanged vows with the producer Michael Todd, whose death in a plane crash a year later guaranteed he'd forever be cited as the one man with whom she could have been happy. The public was deeply moved by the sight of the beautiful, grieving young widow being comforted by Todd's friend, the popular singer Eddie Fisher. They were less moved by the news that Taylor had permitted Fisher to comfort her all the way to the aisle, a development that required him to divorce his own wife, Debbie Reynolds. The newlyweds would co-star in Butterfield 8, for which Liz won the Academy Award for Best Actress.

THE FALLOUT: General consensus has always held that Taylor was given the Oscar because she'd fallen ill and nearly died, so that everybody felt guilty for shunning her as a homewrecker and a black widow. Taylor permitted her rebound husband to hang around pulling her chair out at dinner for five years, until Richard Burton sent a man down to the lobby with a card informing him that his services would no longer be required. In the end, the scandal was folded into the ongoing extravaganza that is Elizabeth Taylor, but Fisher never escaped his position as national shmuck.

7) THE STARS: Sarah Miles and Burt Reynolds.

THE SCANDAL: In 1972, Miles and Reynolds, whose careers were just taking off, co-starred in the Western romance The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing. In the movie, the rough outlaw played by Reynolds abducts and eventually wins the heart of the flinty English beauty played by Miles, in the course of a story that requires her to suffer at the hands of crueler, less photogenic men. Midway through filming, Miles was physically attacked by her business manager, David Whiting, and sought sanctuary by fleeing to Reynolds' quarters; the next morning, Whiting was found to have committed suicide.

THE FALLOUT: At first, the creepy synchronicity between the movie's plot and what happened on the set inspired a certain amount of interest and rumor-mongering, and Esquire ran a purplish article by Ron Rosenbaum titled "The Corpse as Big as the Ritz." Two things splashed cold water on the whole thing: Miles (who was married at the time to playwright Robert Bolt) and Reynolds (who was embarking on a very public relationship with Dinah Shore) failed to hold up their end by having a steamy affair, and the movie turned out to be so dull that no amount of gossip could prop it up at the box office. Much of the blame belonged to Miles; her offscreen reputation as an irresistable temptress didn't come across onscreen. As for Burt Reynolds, Cat Dancing was a blip in his career, sandwiched between his first big hits Deliverance and White Lightning, and was almost instantaneously forgotten.

8) THE STARS: James Woods, actor and nut, and Sean Young, nut.

THE SCANDAL: In 1988, Woods, then 41, and Young, 28, co-starred in the raging-cokehead drama The Boost. They had a nasty public spat that played into popular hysteria over "stalkers" and "fatal attractions." Woods claimed the two of them had enjoyed an on-set affair and that Young, unable to let go, had tried to keep his heart tingly by burning the limbs off a doll and leaving the charred remains on his fiancee's doorstep. Young accused him of being delusional. Woods and his fiancee eventually filed a harassment suit that was settled out of court.

THE FALLOUT: Woods survived the embarrassment while continuing to be frustrated in his attempts to graduate from character actor to mainstream leading man, never mind his bewildering campaign to be seen as a nice guy. But Young, who already had a reputation as a troublesome weirdo to go with her reputation as a godawful actress, was not so lucky. A year later, her attempt to storm Tim Burton's office in a homemade Catwoman costume as part of her master plan to get cast in Batman Returns badly scared the creator of Edward Scissorhands and solidified her image as a once-hot property who would soon be lucky to get hired for the sake of her punchline value in Ace Ventura, Pet Detective.

9) THE STAR: Paul Reubens, actor and improvisational comedian, who achieved camp immortality in the person of his idiot man-child character Pee-wee Herman.

THE SCANDAL: In the summer of 1991, Reubens was arrested for masturbating in a porno theater in Sarasota, Florida. (He was reportedly in town visiting his parents.) A mug shot of Reubens looking like a serial killer was widely circulated, and the media did in fact go after him as if bodies had been found in his crawlspace. Much of the overreaction was probably due to a misunderstanding of the nature of the Pee-wee character and the diversity of his fan base. Reubens had created a surreal parody of a stunted pre-teen, and on his TV show, somehow found a way to function as a "real" kid's-show host without violating that character's essence. Not grasping any of this, much of the press behaved as if Captain Kangaroo had been caught running a white-slavery operation out of the back of Mr. Green Jeans' barn.

THE FALLOUT: In the wake of the scandal, CBS canceled its reruns of Pee-wee's Playhouse. (Contrary to fable, the show itself had already ceased production.) Reubens himself had already decided to put Pee-wee on the shelf, feeling that, after more than a decade, the character was running on fumes. Before retiring Pee-wee forever, Reubens slipped back into his skintight suit for the MTV Awards, where he greeted the crowd with the line, "Heard any good jokes lately?" and brought down the house. 

10) THE STAR: Charlie Sheen, actor.

THE SCANDAL: In 1993, Heidi Fleiss was arrested for running a prostitution ring in Los Angeles. Intense media speculation suggested that the madam's little black book might be chockfull of the names of movie stars and other celebrities. Ultimately, the one recognizable show business name outed was Charlie Sheen. Fleiss was finally sentenced to 37 months in prison for tax evasion in 1997.

THE FALLOUT: When the story broke, Sheen had already slid a ways from his high-profile roles in Platoon and Wall Street. The years that Fleiss was in the news neatly overlapped with his transition to walking punchline. His self-parodying role in Being John Malkovich was the first sign that this might actually be a good look for him. He recently began his seventh year co-starring alongside fellow '80s relic Jon Cryer on the TV sitcom Two and a Half Men, and is currently the highest-paid actor on TV.

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