If either Paul Reubens’ stage character or his alleged offense were different, so might be our response. Imagine what might happen if it had been a Brat Packer — say, Christian Slater, or Emilio Estevez — caught in such a sting. He’d be subjected to two weeks of Jay Leno jokes, 30 hours of community service, and a smug reference in his next movie, and that would be it. The truth is that with the right kind of celebrity and handling, a sex scandal can even help a career.
It certainly didn’t hurt Errol Flynn, whose double statutory-rape trial made for screaming headlines in 1942. Despite Flynn’s denials, it was never seriously in doubt that he had had sex with Betty Hansen and Peggy Satterlee, both underage. The girls’ inconsistent stories and easy-to-smear reputations, however, resulted in an acquittal for the star of The Adventures of Robin Hood. That was fine by the public. By the time the verdict was in, the winking, envious phrase ”in like Flynn” had permanently entered the language — and the actor’s first posttrial film, Gentleman Jim, was a huge hit.
Forty-six years later, the same rules applied when Rob Lowe’s athletic dalliance with a minor was videotaped in an Atlanta hotel room during the Democratic National Convention. The following May, the 16-year-old girl’s mother filed a personal injury suit against the actor, charging that he used his celebrity status to obtain sex with her daughter. At the same time, footage from the tape of Lowe with another woman surfaced. By then Lowe was in Cannes where, he later told a reporter, Dino De Laurentiis and half a dozen other cigar-smoking moguls took him for a walk on the beach and conjured up Flynn’s name as reassurance that he would make it through this seamy dark night of the soul. In fact, Lowe’s next film carried the nudge-nudge title Bad Influence and cast him as a smooth psycho who videotapes sex and murder. It didn’t make a lot of money, but it was well received by the critics and credibly reestablished the actor’s career.
Scandal has worked for actresses as well. The revelation in 1952 that Marilyn Monroe had posed for nude calendar photos four years earlier not only didn’t hurt, it pushed the starlet’s career over the top. And Mary Astor easily survived a brutal 1935 custody battle in which her vivid diary descriptions of alfresco sex with playwright George S. Kaufman (”Ah, desert night — with George’s body plunging into mine, naked under the stars”) were introduced as evidence. Previously cast in ladylike but not especially innocent parts, Astor simply used her new notoriety and became a femme fatale — notably opposite Humphrey Bogart in 1941’s The Maltese Falcon.
As Paul Reubens now knows, the real trouble comes when the public views you in a light sharply at odds with your perceived misdeeds — as a beguiling entertainer of kids. The closest parallel to Pee-wee’s plight is the tragic tale of Roscoe ”Fatty” Arbuckle. Like Reubens, the blimplike silent comedian cultivated a jolly, asexual comic personality, and nothing discombobulates the public more than discovering that their favorite asexual funnyman has sex. The crucial difference is that the crime in the 1921 Arbuckle scandal was infinitely more serious than Reubens’ alleged violation of Florida’s indecent exposure law. After a drunken party in a San Francisco hotel suite, a would-be starlet named Virginia Rappe died of internal injuries, possibly caused by molestation with a bottle. Several witnesses testified that Rappe named Arbuckle as the rapist before she fell into a final coma, but two hung juries and one acquittal later, a jury exonerated the slapstick king with the words ”Acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle…A grave injustice has been done.”
Unfortunately, it was too late. Arbuckle’s silent comedy shorts had long before been withdrawn after audiences in states as far apart as Connecticut and Wyoming had destroyed movie screens showing them. Innocent in the eyes of the law, Arbuckle was damned by the public. His close friend Buster Keaton suggested he turn to directing under the pseudonym ”Will B. Good,” but the comic was no more than a queasy Hollywood footnote for the remainder of his life. He never acted again, turned increasingly to drink, and died in 1933, penniless.