Hollywood's New Sobriety: Is It Real or Just an Act? - Page 2

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

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What happened? The entertainment business experienced a slump, and the rehab business experienced a boom. Actors acting-out was expensive. Sending actors to rehab seemed to work. The tolerance for on-set antics rapidly diminished as the success rate with recovery seemed to be going up.

So did the costs, as completion bond companies were increasingly reluctant to write affordable insurance policies for movie projects that employed risky actors. When Robert Downey Jr. was at his lowest ebb, it has been reported, the only gig he could get was the hyper-low-budget James Toback film Two Girls and A Guy because he couldn’t get insured to do anything else. A similar concern may cost Lindsay Lohan her next couple of film roles, the film executive says.

“There is a lot less patience for that now,” that executive says. “In the 80s and 90s, it was common for stars to get trashed on the set, or refuse to leave their trailers, or engage in other intolerable behavior that would get them blackballed in any other industry. Now, unless you’re someone like Russell Crowe, at the apex of the business, you can’t get away with it. You don’t get the job. A lot of executives I know have a ‘never’ list. Someone behaving that way now goes on the ‘never’ list. It kills anyone who’s not a superstar.”

It might more easily kill a female star than a male, too. The wild-living actress Frances Farmer, famed for her alcohol-fueled sexual acting out, wound up with electroshock therapy while male counterparts like Errol Flynn, Robert Mitchum or Lee Marvin were celebrated for living the same life style. More recently, it’s clear that a Paris Hilton or Britney Spears or Lindsay Lohan can face more negative publicity blowback, and perhaps even stiffer legal penalties, for engaging in far less edgy exploits than their male contemporaries.

Perhaps that’s why Catherine Zeta-Jones’ handlers were so quick to say their client was checking into rehab for bi-polar disorder, not for any substance abuse issues. Even though it is well-established that drug and alcohol addiction are medical problems, bi-polar just sounds more like a disorder that deserves medical attention, and the incumbent sympathy.

Sometimes it is the destructive behavior associated with drug and alcohol abuse, not the abuse itself, that causes the damage. The suits at CBS and Warner Bros. were apparently willing to overlook their Two and a Half Men star Charlie Sheen’s penchant for crack cocaine and hookers as long as he (mostly) made it to the set on time and remembered his lines. When he took to the airwaves and began singling out specific CBS and Warner colleagues with scurrilous and anti-Semitic remarks, however, his enablers stopped enabling.

In the 80s and 90s, it wasn’t just Hollywood stars that were enjoying the high life. Their employers, agents and handlers were not immune from the contagion. High-flying reps from CAA, ICM and William Morris partied harder, and more openly. Whatever the details of their difficulties, the struggles of Columbia former executive vice president of production Michael Nathanson or former New Line president Michael De Luca were whispered about all over town. Executives from certain studios—particularly Columbia Pictures, in the Heidi Fleiss era—rotated their rehab schedules as if they were picking dates for their summer holidays. The excess was tolerated in part because the drug and alcohol use were viewed as the fuel that made them successful.

But as the industry has been hit with troubling new challenges, executives insist, excess has become passe. “The business has gotten so much tougher that the people making it are the people staying up late, reading scripts, and drinking Evian,” said veteran studio executive Mark Gill, a former president of Warner Independent Pictures and Miramax/LA, and now chairman and CEO of The Film Department. “There’s been a total sea change. The days of the Don Simpson dive are over.”

Ironically, notes celebrity handler Bragman, substance abuse has been replaced in some instances by rehab abuse—increasingly many celebrities enter treatment in a bid for sympathy, an attempt to receive legal leniency, or an effort to find a safe harbor from scrutiny. (Shortly after his client, Isiah Washington, made headlines for his anti-gay slurs against a colleague on Grey’s Anatomy, it was widely reported that Washington went to rehab; the actor later clarified that he had done outpatient counseling and accused the network of falsely leaking the rehab announcement.) “Your client can’t talk when he’s in rehab,” Bragman says. “People used to say their client was suffering from exhaustion, or had a problem with prescription drugs. Now you have publicists engaging in ‘pre-hab,’ using rehab as pre-emptive damage control.”

Curiously, Hollywood is helping nurture itself through its own hangover. Some 12-step meetings in Beverly Hills, Hollywood, Silver Lake or Studio City are star-studded affairs, as top-heavy with celebrities as a charity golf event. The attendees may not be using their last names, but neither are they making any attempt to hide their identities, or their problems. (Indeed, many non-alcoholics have been known to frequent A-List A.A. meetings, in a desperate bid to drum up industry connections.)

In the process, it seems that Hollywood is coming to terms with its demons, both on and off the screen. In the old days, cautionary tales like The Days of Wine and Roses or The Lost Weekend were admirable but anomalous. More recently, the studios have greenlit frank depictions of drug and alcohol abuse, in films like Less Than Zero, Rush or Leaving Las Vegas, as well as sobering tales of excess and recovery, like Clean and Sober, 28 Days and When A Man Loves A Woman.

In television, too, characters with drug and alcohol problems, or characters in recovery or sobriety, have become commonplace on prime time shows like Criminal Minds, Dexter, Parenthood, Episodes and others. “There are so many characters on TV that are in recovery, and so many references to recovery and sobriety,” observes Bryn Freedman, an executive producer with the Oprah Winfrey Network and formerly executive producer on the award-winning reality TV series Intervention. “People are talking about it and owning it.”

It’s possible, Freedman suggests, that the newly sensitive on-screen attitude toward recovery may have much  to do with the population of studio and network executives, and film and TV producers who are themselves veterans of the addiction and recovery cycle.

“I don’t know if there’s greater acceptance of addiction, but there’s certainly a greater acceptance of recovery,” Freedman says. “People in recovery, on TV at least, are considered cool. That’s new.”

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.
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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