Hollywood's New Sobriety: Is It Real or Just an Act?

By Charles Fleming 04/21/11

Not long ago, the coolest accessory you could flash on a movie set was a coke-spoon necklace. Now it’s an AA chip. 

Robert Downey, Jr. is Hollywood's poster boy for sobriety

For just a few days Charlie Sheen was in. Then he came out with a vengance. Disney's Demi Lovato was in and out. Ditto for David Arquette. Seann William Scott is still in. Lindsay Lohan is out,  but headed to jail. Catherine Zeta-Jones is in, reportedly for pill problems. Britney Spears is out.These days, recovery in Hollywood is so quotidian that the stars’ stays in rehab are reported as routinely as the weekend box office figures, or like baseball players going in and out of PT for bad elbows. For young celebrities, especially, rehab is as much a part of today’s Hollywood finishing school as singing and dancing lessons were for MGM’s fabled contract players. At times, it seems that everyone’s in rehab. And in the process, recovery has become, somehow....cool.

Aside from Britney, Paris and Mel, there are Owen Wilson, Matthew Perry, Sean Young, Kirsten Dunst, Eva Mendes, Nick Nolte, Kelsey Grammer, John Goodman, Tim Allen, rock legends Steven Tyler and David Crosby, again, as well as Eddie Van Halen and Tommy Lee, Trent Reznor and Richie Zambora (and his ex-Heather Locklear, David Duchovny (for sex addiction), Ben Affleck, Billy Joel, director Oliver Stone, all the Baldwins, Showtime star Jonathan Rhys Meyers, and old-school stars like Gary Busey, Tom Sizemore and David Hasselhoff, again, English rockers Robbie Williams and Ron Wood and Australian-born country music star Keith Urban, American pop divas Whitney Houston and Diana Ross, and former child stars Tatum O’Neill, Mackenzie Phillips and Mary-Kate Olsen. Even The Insider celebrity chronicler Pat O’Brien checked in to rehab, after a much publicized telephone rant,  as if eager to get closer to the story.

These names are just from the last couple of years, and don’t even include the long list of celebrities who had drug and alcohol problems, dealt with them, and went quietly on with their careers—celebrities who have been open about their problems, in varying degrees (Robin Williams, prior to his recent relapse, Eric Clapton, Charlie’s dad Martin Sheen, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Douglas, comedienne Margaret Cho, TV actress Lynda Carter, late night talk show host Craig Ferguson). Others acknowledged their difficulties but were more taciturn about the details (David Letterman, Anthony Hopkins, Alec Baldwin, Patrick Swayze, Bruce Willis, Demi Moore, Faye Dunaway and the late Jack Lemmon).

As the landscape of celebrity recovery has changed, so has the posture of the industry that employs the celebrities.

“Addiction used to be an invisible problem, but now it’s no longer that kind of issue,” says veteran publicist Howard Bragman, who has managed the public presentation of private problems for many high-flying clients. “For some people, it’s not even a stigma. Depending on who the star is, how successful they are, and how people find out about their problem, everything is forgiven. Someone like Robert Downey Jr. is completely forgiven, but someone like Lindsay Lohan could join a nunnery and people would still find a reason to criticize her. On the other hand, she’d probably find the wine room in that nunnery.”

“There has been a greater recognition overall of alcoholism and drug addiction as a disease, not a moral failure,” says Darren Kavinoky, a criminal defense attorney and addiction expert who specializes in legal issues involving drug and alcohol problems.

“It’s become the norm,” adds a therapist who works at one of the A-list recovery centers often in the news because of its popularity with entertainment industry figures. “If you look at the pictures in People, half the celebrities are at a resort, cocktail in hand, cheating on their wives, and the other half are in the backyard, barbecuing with their kids. The first half ought to be in rehab, and the other half has already been in rehab, and everyone knows it.”

This represents a remarkable change of attitude. Hollywood has for decades been a hotbed of experimentation and excess. Movie stars and rock stars were expected to push the limits and live at the edge. Former Stone Temple Pilots front man Scott Weiland, who has stated publicly that he’s been in and out of rehab more than 40 times, summed it up beautifully after a 2007 drunk driving arrest:  “I live my life the way I live my life. I don’t have to make any apologies.”

Excess was a badge of honor in the 70s and 80s, and a coke spoon and a vial of Colombian marching powder were as much a part of the Hollywood power uniform as the record company jacket or the Vuarnet sunglasses. They were associated with success.

Super producer Don Simpson was celebrated as a crazed, coke-fueled genius with an admirably superhuman appetite for drugs and hookers. He and his co-conspirators in the go-go 80s—Jack Nicholson, Robert Evans, Don Henley and others—were just doing what any guys would do if they had money, power and fame enough to get away with it.

A decade later, Chris Farley was mourned as a tragic clown with a sadly insatiable appetite for vodka and cocaine. Like John Belushi before him, he was seen as a talented but deeply flawed man, fighting his demons with drugs and alcohol, and losing.

By the millennium, though, struggling performers like Christian Slater and Robert Downey Jr. came to be viewed as wounded artists whose inner child needed to be nurtured back to sanity—and stardom.

“Robert Downey Jr. was always viewed as the most talented but most challenged actor of his generation,” says a studio executive who asked not to be named. “He has found a way through, and been very properly rewarded for it with a huge career. And there are others who, it’s very well known, have popped out of it and come out the other side. This is kind of a new phenomenon.

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Veteran entertainment industry reporter Charles Fleming is the Los Angeles-based author of the books High Concept and My Lobotomy. He teaches entertainment reporting at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication + Journalism, and is the Entertainment Editor at The Los Angeles Times. You can follow Charles on Linkedin and Twitter