James Toback stopped me on Broadway right in front of Ernie’s Restaurant where I worked at the time. I was wearing shorts and remembered I felt fat. My hair was dirty. He was wearing a big black shirt and was sweating profusely. “Can I talk to you for a second. I had to stop you because you have something really special. An energy or whatever you’d like to call it. I’ve been following you for a couple of blocks. I’m a director and I have a new movie I’m casting. You’d be perfect for a role. It’s for a tennis player and you’re perfect physically for that.” He was talking fast and I was tired and I listened.
I am an actress. A good one. But I was new to it at the time and I had a hit or miss success in auditions. I love acting, but I’m not competitive. Or maybe I’m very competitive and I feel guilty about it so I opt out so I don’t have to feel as bad about losing. I don’t know. I do know I had been accused of not being ambitious enough for my talents and shy about promoting myself. So his interest intrigued me.
I can’t write many more direct quotes because I was in my late twenties and I’m now in my late forties and any dialogue we had would be paraphrasing. But with the help of recollections from both my ex-boyfriend at the time and other women who had encounters with Toback, I remember much more than I thought I did. I certainly remember the feelings.
He kept on talking, not really letting me get a word in. He was imposing physically and above-average in repulsiveness. The speed of his patter, in retrospect, seemed like he wanted to get it over with to get to the meat of the matter, but at the time I interpreted it as excitement about me. I’m smart, but considering I grew up in New York City, I’m incredibly naïve. And I trust my intellect will save me from bad decisions and bad people and that has proven not always to be the case.
Hearing him say how compelling I was, was exactly what I wanted and needed, especially since I felt unattractive. From other women’s accounts, Toback also stopped them when they weren’t feeling at their best. Maybe he sensed their vulnerability and mine. Maybe he knew he’d have a better shot at making his mark when we at our most insecure. All of us were young and hungry and wanting to be special.
He dropped some names, told me the films he had done. I’d heard of some. He showed me a dogeared, yellowed paperback—Jim Brown’s autobiography (I knew next-to-nothing about football)—and said he was in it. That he used to go to wild parties with him where there were orgies. He wrote down his number for me and told me to call him after I had watched all his movies so I could get a sense of what he did. He begged me to get in contact.
So I watched his movies—Fingers, Black and White and Two Girls and A Guy—and they were very good. In fact excellent. I was impressed. They were compelling and thought-provoking and disturbing. And well-acted. He was a legitimate talent. I weighed his creepiness against his technical skill and decided I would call him. My boyfriend gave me the go-ahead because he wanted me to have the chance to be in something great. I believe my mom gave me her blessings too.
Toback told me to meet him at the Harvard Club. Sophisticated me let him know I had many friends who went to Harvard. So suave. As I matured, I came to realize that many dumb and horrible people went/go to Harvard but at that point I was still unreasonably impressed.
We met and talked some more. I’m not sure exactly what he said, but it was more name-dropping and compliments, and it started to go into a sexual direction. Vaguely. He made himself out to be a libertine. I was not, but I didn't want to betray my innocence so I just tried to look mature and worldly-wise.
He asked me to come visit him at his editing studio on Leroy Street and see the movie he was cutting. And then I would audition for him. It sounded professional, but when I called my ex-boyfriend the other day to check with him about whether I had my facts straight, he told me that I left the apartment at around midnight, which is definitely a strange time to have an audition. I lived a short distance away, and as I walked over, I said under my breath, “Please let this be real. Please tell me I’m not being stupid.”
I went, I saw him editing the movie. He explained what he was doing at each step. It was interesting, he was good at it. We stayed there for about 10 minutes and then he said we should go to his office and see what I had.
We went upstairs. He told me he had done the most LSD anybody had ever consumed. I don’t know how to check the records on that but I’m sure Timothy Leary would disagree. He said it gave him insight into orgasms. He said he could just go back into his experiences and have an orgasm with his mind. He said I had to get in touch with my sexuality, I had to go to dangerous places in myself and scare myself in order to access what he was looking for in an actress. He saw it in me, but I had to be prepared and committed to doing this if he were to give me a role in one of his movies. Then he gossiped about actors. Really nasty things he shouldn’t have told a stranger. I won’t say what they were, but they weren’t nice and I doubt they were even true. I do know that he said he admired Mike Tyson because he was an animal, barely in control. That’s what he wanted to see from me.
I was fairly innocent. I hadn’t been with many men. And I’d only had long-term relationships. I didn’t know myself well in that way at all. I was shy and modest and I still don’t lead with my sexuality. Being ladylike was something that was drilled into me by school and my family and it was hard to abandon. I hardly talk about sex with anyone, even now. What he was asking me to do was something I struggled with in every acting class I’d ever had. It scared me. And so that stupid phrase “Do something every day that terrifies you” popped into me head. “Maybe this is exactly what I need to do. Force yourself.”
He asked me to sit on the couch and be sexual. Thank god I kind of froze. I just closed my eyes and tried to think sexy thoughts but it was impossible because Toback was sitting right in front of me and I found him to be disgusting.
He told me it wasn’t working so we’d have to try something else. He said he was going to look into my eyes and try to see if I had something inside me that could make him orgasm. He said to watch his eyes and see if they dilate and then I’d know he was cumming. I couldn't move. He knelt down on one knee in between my own and pressed his erection into my thigh. He stared into my eyes and I saw them move back and forth rapidly as if he had R.E.M., but awake. He told me to pinch his nipples. I thought, "If this is all I have to do to end this, I'll do it." Then I heard him grunt loudly and it was over. It was probably a minute but it felt like forever. He told me his wife was very powerful and if I mentioned this experience to anyone, he’d ruin me. And then he said “I saw what I wanted to see. Thanks. I’ll let you know.” And I was dismissed.
I’ve had much more upsetting and traumatic experiences in my life. I’m not shattered by James Toback’s perversions. However, I remember the feelings right afterward, walking around the neighborhood, unable to go home right away where my boyfriend was probably waiting up, excited to hear about my meeting, hopeful it would lead to something big for me. I felt so stupid, so shaken, so mad at myself. I decided not to tell him about letting that vile, sweaty man have an orgasm by looking into my formerly starry eyes. What was I thinking?? Believing his praises, going up to his office alone. Not leaving when he started talking about my sexuality and asking me what kind of pubic hair I had. And relief that I managed to get out of there without being raped. My biggest fear. Every woman's, I'd wager. I had been molested as a six year old. It could have happened again, but worse. Now I was a grown women who should have been more responsible for my actions. I made a bad, bad decision and it was all my fault for not heading the warning signs.
What I had forgotten is that I didn’t have the uncontrolled impulses to sexually abuse young women. I came in there with good intentions. Toback did not. He targeted girls and plotted how to trap them and make them his victims, like all predators do. He was the bad guy, not me. I was young and inexperienced in the ways of the world and how men sometimes use their stature and physical presence to prey on vulnerable women. It was a sober reminder that most women are targets of abuse. Young, defenseless men too. I thought someone considered me special and it turned out he didn’t, I wasn’t, I was one of many. Hundreds, it seems. I never really trusted myself and and my specialness again. i’m sure I’m not alone.
One detail I forgot: when I talked to my ex to corroborate my story, he told me that a few years later as I was walking down the street, James Toback stopped me again and said the same things to me, demanding I meet with him and audition for a role in his movie. He didn't remember one of his victims. He wanted to take advantage of me again. I don’t recall my response. I hope I shut him down in a brutal way. But I don’t think I did. I am still too polite.