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.

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