"Hounddog" premiers without protests
January 24, 2007
James Morse on Monday afternoon was on Main Street, giving out handbills advertising what is the Sundance Film Festival’s most controversial movie this year.
A few hours before "Hounddog" premiered at the Racquet Club, with lots of media attention, Morse, who is in his mid-20s and has lived in Park City for about 10 months, was still trying to hype the movie, even as it had already received as much publicity as any other film this year.
In the movie, the character played by child star Dakota Fanning is raped, a scene that has upset some and sparked rumblings that there might be demonstrations at the Monday premier. A religious group has condemned the movie and requested that prosecutors determine whether it breaks child-pornography laws.
Morse, who had not seen the movie before agreeing to distribute the handbills, says scenes like those are difficult for actors and he says he once played a part in a high school play that involved an attempted rape scene.
Morse says he was 17 years old and in high school in Ohio when he got the part in a black box theater. He was cast as a 28-year-old who tried to rape a woman.
To play the role, he says, he had to separate himself as an actor from who he really is.
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"Back then, I remember it being my most chilling role — counter to everything I learned" as a person, he says. "You have to partition yourself."
He says he saw the scene as part of the overall character and says, by making that consideration, he was able to play the part.
"It’s not just ‘I’m going to attempt rape . . . It’s one event in a series of events that makes a character," Morse says.
Outside the Racquet Club before the "Hounddog" premier, the police monitored the crowd, as they do during lots of high-profile screenings. However, with lots of reporters gathered outside, no demonstrators appeared either before or after the screening, the police report. There was a demonstration zone barricaded off near the entry but it was vacant for about two hours before the movie started. The Police Department reports no problems at the premier.
In the days before the premier, the publicity caused speculation that religious groups might protest. On Jan. 18, the Catholic League, described by itself as a civil-rights organization for Catholics, issued a statement asking the Department of Justice to investigate whether the movie breaks federal child-pornography laws.
"For the past five years, there has been a steady drumbeat of criticism aimed at the Catholic Church for allowing sexual abuse of minors to continue with impunity. Much of that criticism was right on target. Let’s see now whether Hollywood will be held to the same level of scrutiny for promoting simulated child rape movies," the league’s president, Bill Donohue, said in a prepared statement.
Park City Attorney Mark Harrington and David Brickey, the Summit County attorney, said they did not plan to send prosecutors to the screening to watch the film.
Lots of people were outside the Racquet Club trying to buy tickets for the sold-out screening. Most of them seemed to be unsuccessful. It also appeared that most of the people in a wait-list line trying to buy tickets were turned away.
Rhonda Spencer, who is from Edmond, Okla., was with the people trying to buy extras outside. Spencer says she could not rate the scene without watching the movie.
"People don’t take things like this lightly," she says. "I’d have to see it to decide how disturbing it really is."
Spencer, though, says the controversy did not draw her to the Racquet Club. She hoped to see a Sundance movie regardless.
"We just wanted to see a movie while we’re here," she says, adding, "I just looked for movies with names I recognized."
The movie is scheduled to screen three more times during the festival: Jan. 24 at 3:15 p.m. at the Eccles Center, Jan. 25 at 11:30 a.m. at the Racquet Club and Jan. 26 at 6 p.m. at the Tower Theatre in Salt Lake City.