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Movies

Victor Salva's horror stories

In his new film, the `Jeepers Creepers' director trades nightmares for hope. But it's not exactly a happy ending for the convicted molester.

June 11, 2006|Patrick Goldstein | Times Staff Writer

Salva was transferred to Soledad state prison early in his jail sentence after being badly beaten by another inmate. "The prison is like a big pressure cooker," he says. "Everyone is furious at being in there, and if they know what you're in there for -- a sex offense -- either you're going to be somebody's puppet or beaten beyond recognition, as I was."

Just before Salva went to prison, he spoke to Coppola, who told him the experience would have value. "Francis said, 'It will make you a better artist,' " Salva recalls. "He left out one important part -- if you survive it."

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The industry's reaction

SINCE the earliest days of Hollywood, people have argued over how to weigh an artist's accomplishments against his misdeeds. Long after the villains and victims are in their graves the debate rages on. When the academy gave Elia Kazan an honorary Oscar in 1999, nearly 50 years after he'd informed on his communist sympathizer friends before the House Un-American Activities Committee, the move prompted a huge uproar, accompanied by emotional protests and fiery op-ed pieces.

In 1921, when comedian Fatty Arbuckle was at the peak of his success, he threw a wild party where a young starlet named Virginia Rappe went into severe convulsions and died of a ruptured bladder, allegedly after having been sexually assaulted by the 300-pound actor. Even though he was eventually acquitted, the scandal forced Arbuckle into retirement. However, after the worst was over, his industry friends hired him as a director, and he worked under a pseudonym until his death.

Roman Polanski was arrested in 1977 after police said he drugged and raped a 13-year-old model while taking pictures of her for French Vogue. Although he later fled the country, fearing he would be jailed for years, Polanski went right back to work, making "Tess," which earned him a best director Academy Award nomination, an award he later won for "The Pianist." That Oscar provoked a new round of recriminations over whether Polanski's behavior should disqualify him from receiving a respected artistic honor.

In Hollywood, a town where the sinners have always easily outnumbered the saints, not many people are willing to cast the first stone. Even the most heinous acts have been forgiven, especially if they involve a gifted artist or an executive who's kept the box-office machine humming.

Barely two years after Columbia Pictures chief David Begelman was fired in 1978 after a bizarre check-forging spree was made public, he was hired to run another studio that needed a hit maker. It was Cliff Robertson, the man who blew the whistle, whom no one would employ for years. In 1987, Matthew Broderick was driving on the wrong side of the road in Ireland when his BMW crashed head-on into another car, killing a young woman and her invalid mother. He pleaded guilty to the charge of careless driving, was fined the equivalent of $175 and went on with his career.

Throughout Salva's tribulations, Coppola has remained his loyal patron. After Salva's release from prison, Coppola gave him $5,000, which he lived on for a year. When MGM was nervous about hiring Salva to direct "Jeepers Creepers," Coppola, then producing a slate of films at the studio, vouched for him.

"Someone had launched a campaign against Victor, saying, 'How can you give this guy a movie to make?' " recalls Coppola. "Some of the financing for the film fell through. One of the actors resigned when he learned about the case. So I helped Victor get the job. I was criticized for it, but my attitude is, he has a talent, and that talent in itself is good. We don't have to embrace the person in believing that their art is a contribution to society."

Coppola was on hand for some of the filming of "Clownhouse" -- since it was made, in part, at Coppola's home in Napa Valley. "I didn't know of anything improper going on, although I witnessed some things that caused me to raise an eyebrow," he says. "Only in retrospect did things really add up. You have to remember, while this was a tragedy, that the difference in age between Victor and the boy was very small -- Victor was practically a child himself." (Actually, Salva was 29 to the boy's 12.)

Coppola is not surprised that some people will never forgive Salva. "They're entitled to feel that way," he says. "But he has a real gift as a filmmaker. The punishment has been completed, and he should be a citizen again."

Rebecca Winters Sousa, the victim's mother, says her son has moved on with his life. "I am really proud of my son for speaking out when 'Powder' was released because it wasn't easy," she says. "But as long as Victor is kept away from kids, I don't have a problem with him working. Everybody has a right to his life, so I have no animosity. I have forgiven him a long time ago."

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