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.