Young Hollywood’s Last Party: Why Do So Many Stars Meet an Untimely End?


James Byron Dean, 1931-1955
Films Include: Rebel Without a Cause (1955), East of Eden (1955), Giant (1956).
Cause of Death: Car crash. Age: 24.

River Jude Phoenix, 1970-1993
Films Include: Stand By Me (1986), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), My Own Private Idaho (1991).
Cause of Death: Drug-induced heart failure. Age: 23.

Brad Barron Renfro, 1982-2008
Films Include: The Client (1994), Sleepers (1996), Ghost World (2001).
Cause of Death: Acute heroin intoxication. Age: 25.

Heath Andrew Ledger, 1979-2008
Films Include: Monster’s Ball (2001), Brokeback Mountain (2005), The Dark Knight (2008).
Cause of Death: Overdose of prescription drugs. Age: 28.

There’s no shortage of obituaries like these. Chris Farley, 33, speedball overdose. Jonathan Brandis, 27, suicide by hanging. Chris Penn, 40, heart disease exacerbated by drugs. Anna Nicole Smith, 39, overdose of prescription drugs.

It’s a sobering list that raises critical questions: What causes a rising star to abruptly decline and fall? Is it partly the effect of modern-day media hype via blogs, Websites, ‘zines, cablevision, you name it? Are the pressures of fame—YouTube embarrassments, TMZ headlines, 24/7/365 journalism, shameless paparazzi and the rest—especially hazardous to the psychological health of twentysomething celebs like Ledger and Phoenix, who play the game for a while but then abruptly self-destruct? Or is this just the traditional price of fame with a few contemporary twists?

One insider who takes the traditional-price-of-fame view is James Schamus, the head of Focus Features and producer of such films as Brokeback Mountain and The Ice Storm. “In many ways,” he says, “the pressures of working in Hollywood are basically the same as they’ve been for a long time and they’re not so particular to Hollywood either.” What is different is the specific form the pressures currently take. “I’ve worked with a lot of young stars in my day,” Schamus continues, “and the vast majority are every bit as professional and hard-working and sane and together as anybody else. But the technologies of gossip have ramped things up and I think you have to be more vigilant and tougher-skinned than you probably ever did before… It takes extra will power and discipline to avoid getting caught up, but a lot of [celebrities] do avoid it and others [have serious problems] but then figure out a way to move on. In those cases [the media] doesn’t pay attention.”

Beneath the buzz touched off by every new tragedy, it’s certain that the celebrity spotlight is shining on young stars more brightly—and blindingly—than ever before. The tabloids have never been more tabloidy and even “respectable” news sources think nothing of starting a story with a sensationalistic spin. “Amy Winehouse drives another nail in the coffin that is her career,” shrieks a headline on MercuryNews.com, reporting that a YouTube video shows the “drug-abusing, whacked-out” singer spewing racial epithets near a table strewn with drug paraphernalia, then “snoring loudly” on a sofa after passing out. Earlier this year the TV show “Entertainment Tonight” reported that 15-year-old Miley Cyrus had done a topless photo shoot with Annie Leibovitz for Vanity Fair and The New York Times soon put a picture on its Website. This sounds scandalous until you see the shot: Cyrus is covered with a bedsheet and the only bare body part is her back. The titillating report was clearly cooked up to capitalize on voyeuristic lust for revealing glimpses of very young girls.

Brouhahas like these point to the fact that young celebrities can’t consider themselves “safe” from exploitation in any media venue, even supposedly reputable ones. “It’s become possible for tabloid-style items to find their way into formerly more upscale venues such as The Atlantic Monthly, Vanity Fair and the NBC Nightly News, to give just a few cases,” says Murray Pomerance, a Ryerson University sociologist whose books include Johnny Depp Starts Here and An Eye for Hitchcock. “Tabloid coverage now seems to be virtually everywhere, becoming not only a media genre but also—and more importantly—a way of doing business in the media.

“Since celebrities come equipped with worldwide recognition, no work is needed to pump up the appeal of a story; it’s packaged automatically… and at no cost. So we see more and more stories on a wild variety of subjects, each one selling advertising more efficiently than stories ever have before. The net effect of this is that coverage now focuses on absolutely any aspect of a celebrity’s [image], since the identity of the celebrity alone is sufficient to sell the story.” Add in the fact that media outlets have a “constant demand for a huge volume of material,” and you have the recipe for All Celebrity Scandal All the Time, no more fair and balanced than a Vegas pole-dance extravaganza.

Still, every case has its own dynamics and generalizations are hard to come by. “There’s a vast difference between a Ledger or Phoenix on one hand and Amy Winehouse or Lindsay Lohan on the other,” says Thelma Adams, film and DVD critic for US Weekly. “Ledger was an incredibly talented, malleable actor who had fewer skills on the stage of real life. His death was a tragedy because it was so obviously unintended—he messed up the mix, he didn’t intend to leave his family behind. He wasn’t hounded by the press so much as bored to tears by the relentless tedium of having to answer the same questions over and over again when junketing for a film. For many actors, acting isn’t work, promoting the movie is.”

Heath Ledger

What prompts those monotonous questions, of course, is an endless curiosity about every aspect of a celebrity’s life. “We’re stuck in the double-bind of wanting to believe celebrities live in a different world than we do,” says Mikita Brottman, author of Hollywood Hex and The Solitary Vice: Against Reading. “We want to think that if you’re talented, wealthy, famous and beautiful, you live a charmed life, so there are lots of TV shows, blogs and Websites that detail the charms and riches a celebrity can have. But there are just as many that reveal how celebrities suffer as much self-doubt, depression and anguish as the rest of us—probably a whole lot more—and are subject to the same petty squabbles, mood swings, dashed hopes and disappointments. It’s always been this way; the technology may be different, but the psychology is the same. In fact, there were probably more drug casualties in old Hollywood, when celebrity doctors would hand out uppers and downers on the quiet!”

It’s unquestionable that today’s celebrities are expected to live their personal lives in as public a way as possible and that if they try to hold anything back, the shameless media (which means pretty much all the media) will gladly sniff out the missing material. “The celebrity as a person is forced into a condition of almost total passivity,” Pomerance says. “Without making any attempt to engage the press—through a press agent, say, and for known publicity purposes—the star gets photographed, commented upon, analyzed—even diagnosed—with respect to all sorts of commonplace activities that in earlier days would have constituted part of the star’s ‘backstage.’ Now the backstage is gone as far as reporters are concerned. They see no limits, which means privacy can be maintained only at very great expense and with the loyalty (bought) of minions in the hundreds. Passivity equals impotence. The star can’t do anything, because every miniscule aspect of daily life is done to the star.”

If things are this bad when media hyenas dig out embarrassing facts, they’re a whole lot worse when journalists decide truthfulness is a pesky detail—that a story’s entertainment value is what counts and sticking to reality just interrupts the chase when it’s getting good. “Smaller and smaller nuances of star behavior are sufficient to [generate] more and more elaborate stories,” Pomerance points out, “so we see an expansion of the questionable story, the story purporting things the stars vehemently deny. Tabloid reporting isn’t basically factual. It only needs to be connected to some thread that can be tied to an ongoing reality—say, a star standing next to a figure they can be rumored to be attached to or not attached to. Anything and everything the star does is news. The star has become a form of currency.”

Another large pressure on unseasoned entertainers is society’s expectation that they’ll act as role models for fans who aren’t much younger—or may even be older—than they are. “Someone like Amy Winehouse rose to fame because her art was a way for her to transmute, to exorcise her demons,” Adams says. “The demons didn’t go away because she became famous. She couldn’t be a role model once she had everything a little girl could want because she was never role model material. Or take Miley Cyrus and ask her if she wanted to be a role model. No, she wanted to sing. And as she became more successful, she was increasingly surrounded by adults who expected her to work adult hours and behave like an adult. So she listens to adults, advisers and Vanity Fair and does a photo shoot with a classy artiste photographer and ends up on the cover of the mag with a naked back. Not her decision; not her trajectory. She was still a minor, straddling the worlds of childhood and adulthood, being expected to behave like an adult in some situations and a child in others. It’s an impossible situation.”

Pomerance has a similar take on the impossible situation syndrome. “Young stars who find great celebrity very quickly have no easy resources for learning how to accommodate this state of affairs,” he says. “Older celebrities do not give workshops for younger ones on what it means to have a public life. Often young stars learn about the features of public life by reading the same tabloid tales everyone else reads and then gossiping about them with their friends… The young celebrity feels more and more stifled and suffocated all the time, subjected to more and more attention for doing less and less. Finally the star breaks out, as a way of committing action, and we see an apparent violent or explosive behavior ‘coming out of the blue.’ A reason why stars turn to drugs is because their effect is internal—reporters can see the star’s face but not the star’s experience. The star turns to dramatic self-endangerment, perhaps seeing this as the only way of doing and being that can speed out of the reporter’s orbit.”

Behind their analyses of what drives some 21st-century celebrities off the rails, the experts I spoke with generally agree that Hollywood success stories have come with high price tags for a long time and that the biggest changes have taken place not in the stars’ personalities but in the high-tech media machines that stalk and harass them. “A pop star who has a mental health problem… can get more press than the war in Iraq,” observes Schamus, but the star’s actual problems may be pretty much the same as they would have been decades ago. “I cannot imagine,” Schamus adds with a sardonic laugh, “that you could possibly sustain a thesis that says: Back in 1967 and 1968, [stars] had none of this pressure of drugs and sex and rock ‘n’ roll and media—and now they do!’” MM

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