The 10 most disturbing trends in Hollywood

Drug-addled actors! Celebrity sycophants! Obnoxious sob stories! I'm sick of Jim Carrey, Robert Downey Jr. and their goddamned adoring press.

Published January 3, 2001 8:00PM (EST)

Hollywood is a capricious town, run by people who often defy rational analysis. Rather than try to understand why they do what they do, it's better to let their actions speak for themselves. What the following 10 most disturbing trends are saying right now is that it's time to chlorinate the Hollywood talent pool.

1) From "The Pen" to prime time
Doing their part to curb the recidivism of prison-prone celebrities, studio honchos have benevolently turned their soundstages into refuges for addicts, ex-cons, wife-beaters, drunk drivers and other pathological lowlifes. While criminal scandal once ended a performer's career (Fatty Arbuckle, Lenny Bruce), nowadays legal skirmishes and lawless behavior only seem to up a star's professional appeal. This regressive phenomenon is typified in the continuing employment of scandal-plagued celebrities like Rob Lowe and Hugh Grant and the recent reinstatement of actor-jailbirds Robert Downey Jr. and Charlie Sheen. In any other vocation, Downey and Sheen would have doubtlessly been shit-canned after their first court appearance. Are these men talented? No question. Are there sober SAG members who could have just as capably carried off the same roles? No question.

At the risk of sounding like a do-good prude, there's something troubling about a convicted drug offender (coke, crack and black tar heroin were all found on Downey) signed to a $75,000-per-episode "Ally McBeal" payday hardly a week after being released from the clink. Even more troubling is that his checks are being signed by prolific über-producer David E. Kelley. Someone of Kelley's standing endorsing Downey sends a disquieting message to all those fuckups-in-the-making that a job will always be waiting for them regardless of what felonious acts they may commit.

2) Celebrity sob stories
Using the media as their own personal psychiatrist's couch, attention-deprived celebs have resorted to public therapy as a means of drumming up buzz for upcoming projects. This wanton promotional ploy has become practically de rigueur, making it impossible to turn on a TV or pick up a magazine without seeing some neurotic star spilling his psychic guts about some woebegone emotional calamity (e.g. molestation, alcoholism, suicidal tendencies, etc.). Listening to these self-pitying jet-setters bitch and moan, it would seem that sitting on top of the world is an insufferable burden worthy of Job. Melanie Griffith, who is still getting leading roles, even if they come from her husband, still can't stay away from the painkillers. Meanwhile, we learn that love "depresses" Jim Carrey, who makes $20 million a movie and dates babes like Renée Zellweger. Anyone notice his timing?

Now maybe I'm just jaded, but are we honestly expected to waste our sympathy on ingrates hellbent on pissing away their own prosperity when there are people out there who actually warrant it? Instead of pandering to the hoi polloi with a "celebrities are people too" spiel, I would have more respect for ersatz tragedy cases like Jewel (whose much-ballyhooed early years were spent in log cabins and vans) if they stopped insulting our intelligence and reveled in their immodest success without apology or qualification. Just once, I would like to hear them publicly confess that given the choice between poverty and wealth, it's a damn sight better to be wealthy.

3) Familiarity breeds contempt
Steven Weber, Delta Burke, Craig T. Nelson, Victoria Principal, Tony Danza -- with these corpses resurrected from the television graveyard to head up this season's prime time lineup, is it any wonder network viewership is tanking? While whip-smart cable series like "The Sopranos" and "Sex and the City" favor nonconformist casting (James Gandolfini and Sarah Jessica Parker have benchmarked small-screen thesping with authentic, nuanced characterizations), the Big Four networks insist on playing it safe by stocking shows with war horses from series past. Living up to their reputation as myopic slaves to convention, programming heads have converted the medium into a recycling bin for has-beens, erroneously convinced that famous faces do good ratings make. The new strategy: Move overdone movie stars to the little screen. So far, the ratings for both "Bette" and "The Geena Davis Show" are disappointing at best.

4) The cult of famosity
Gratuitous violence in video games, explicit lyrics in rap music, steamy love scenes on daytime soaps and Jerry Springer have all been cited at one time or another by pious, self-righteous politicos as contributing to the moral degradation of this country's youth. Yet there remains an even more virulent threat to the emotional welfare of our children that is consistently overlooked during those star-studded dog-and-pony shows on Capitol Hill. The name of this societal blight is celebrity worship and its ill effects can be seen on everyone from horny, post-menopausal housewives storming the barricades at a Brad Pitt movie premiere to yokel tourists waving "Marry me Matt" signs outside "The Today Show."

The deification of entertainers is hardly a modern invention, but it has begun to metastasize in recent years in concert, I think, with the proliferation of fluffy, gossip-oriented newsmagazine shows like "Entertainment Tonight." Such programs exist for the sole ignoble purpose of kowtowing to Tinseltown's narcissistic elite. Stroking the gold-plated fantasies of homebound celebutantes, they inundate us with teasing glimpses into a world we can never inhabit - a place where graying leading men boink nubile starlets 20 years their junior and everyone makes 100 times what they're worth.

Earning his place alongside preeminent ego coddlers Oprah Winfrey and Larry King, nobody exemplifies this age of unabashed star-fucking better than "Access Hollywood" co-host Pat O'Brien. Once a reputable journalist, O'Brien has willingly reduced himself to being a professional toady shilling for his higher-ups at Warner Bros. In a country supposedly founded upon the ideals of individuality and creative expression, how paradoxical that a cerebral artist/provocateur like Marilyn Manson is persecuted for speaking his mind ... while an ineffectual phony like Pat O'Brien is all but praised for shelving it.

5) "Inside the Actors Studio"
As the hirsute, groveling host of Bravo's chat fest, James Lipton is closing in on Kathie Lee Gifford's status as the most reviled personality on television - an honor backed up by scathing parodies on "Saturday Night Live" and "Mr. Show." With his unctuous interview style, haughty inflections and shameless sycophancy, Lipton is every guest's dream -- and every viewer's rotten lunch. The only thing more wince-inducing than Lipton are his obsequious MFA students, a motley, pretentious bunch of would-be Brandos, Kazans and Monroes. By trotting out illustrious, Method-acting alumni like Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep to regale this crowd with ingratiating anecdotes, "Inside the Actors Studio" gives a deceitful air of legitimacy to what is effectively a moneymaking scam intended to feed the dreams of desperate, aging acting students.

Lipton shirks his mentorial responsibility and offers his captive audience an unrealistic sense of hope ("If you work very, very hard, this is the kind of actor, writer and director you may turn out to be," he once gushed in reference to Alan Alda). Curious to see just how many New School grads have made good on Dean Lipton's lofty expectations, I visited the student news list on the Actors Studio official Web site. As it turns out, the bulk of the current class can either be found toiling in the impoverished obscurity of repertory theater or no-budget indie films. Not to diminish the value of anyone's work, but after $60,000 and three years of laborious, Stanislavsky-style training, shouldn't they expect more for their investment than, say, a negligible part in a production of "Bunnicula" at North Carolina's Raleigh Little Theatre?

6) The cast of "Survivor"
Pity the poor starving artist honing his craft in an off-off-off-Broadway production of "The Cherry Orchard" while some no-talent from a reality show is inundated with the agent deals, party invites and job offers he spent the better part of his life training for. So far, a seeming moron has been appointed "Extra's" medical correspondent, a homophobic Neanderthal has gotten his SAG card, a cheesehead truck driver has her own Hollywood Square and a fatuous ex-waitress has landed a leading role in a feature film. When the second go-round of "Survivor" pollutes the airwaves this January, heaven help us. We can only hope the Hollywood cognoscenti will be a little more discerning when it comes to which castaways receive the star treatment. Instead of serving up fame and fortune on a silver platter to these neophytes, here's a novel idea: How about making them pay their damn dues like everybody else?

7) The sequel fetish
Hollywood, bastion of creative bankruptcy that it is, never met a remake or a sequel it didn't like. In Y2K, no fewer than 15 releases based on previously mined material made it to the multiplexes. With the possible exception of "M:I-2" (and even that was botched by John Woo's flashy, self-parodying direction and Robert Towne's generic script), none of these entries managed to surpass the critical or commercial success of its predecessors.

"Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2" was a superfluous follow-up to arguably the most over-hyped and underwhelming movie of the past decade. Then, relegating the eternally cool Richard Roundtree to a thankless supporting role, Columbia went the obvious route and tapped the nauseatingly overexposed <a href="/Samuel L. Jackson to play private dick "Shaft" - even though he lacked both the class and unaffected machismo of his leather-clad progenitor. And "The Flintstones: Viva Rock Vegas" gave every burger flipper and cocktail waitress in the country a dream that they too could one day get paid millions of dollars to run a studio into the ground.

Unfortunately, the future does not look any better: There are nine retreads coming in 2001, including Steven Soderbergh's retake on the Rat Pack's "Ocean's 11," "Jurassic Park 3" and Tim Burton's "Planet of the Apes." Look on the bright side though: At least we won't have to sit through another "Doctor Dolit" ... Oh, wait. Never mind.

8) A-list actors, C-list roles
Actors, by their very nature, are a masochistic lot. Left to their own devices and an inattentive agent, sooner or later they're almost guaranteed to machine gun their tennis trainers. Taste (or lack thereof) is the most common bane. Whereas some have the Midas touch when it comes to choosing scripts (see Tom Hanks' filmography), others are congenitally hopeless in their decision-making prowess (see Nicolas Cage's CV).

Conventional wisdom would suggest that they ought to know the difference between shit and sugar, but, judging from the once bankable names who are now in career life-support, that's hardly the case. John Travolta, for instance, is notorious for being his own worst enemy, someone whose inimitable gifts as an entertainer are invariably undermined by his own undiscriminating palate. After nostalgia fiend Quentin Tarantino singlehandedly returned him to superstar status with "Pulp Fiction," Travolta uncharacteristically sidestepped the minefields of his past by starring in a string of back-to-back hits. Whether out of complacency, idiocy or just plain greed, he eventually went back to his old ways and began delivering performances undeserving of his bloated, perk-heavy contracts. Coming full circle, Travolta reached his second occupational nadir this summer with the embarrassing flop "Battlefield Earth" - an ill-advised vanity project so atrocious it makes you long for "Perfect" and "Two of a Kind."

Then there's Robin Williams, a brilliant performer who fell to the fated Oscar curse. Since snagging the best supporting actor trophy for "Good Will Hunting," Williams has senselessly jettisoned comedy for schmaltzy clunkers like "Jakob the Liar." Seemingly disgruntled by the lukewarm response to his last few flicks, Williams has gone into a self-imposed exile from the movie biz and was last seen misspending his superlative improv skills on "Whose Line Is It Anyway?"

9) The fame game
How is a star born? In many respects, the process by which one achieves stardom is about as abstruse and defective as the process by which our presidential candidates are chosen - oftentimes we have no clue who these people are, what exactly they did, why we should pay any attention to them and how they even got there in the first place. Hollywood is the land of illusion, after all, and there is no greater illusion than convincing members of the public that they actually have a say in who makes it. In reality, those decisions are made by a clandestine ad hoc committee of publicists, agents, editors, producers and other sundry big shots long before we ever get a chance to exercise our will.

If anyone doubts our impotency to influence the course of popular culture, I encourage them to recall the media hype surrounding Matthew McConaughey's "overnight" explosion onto the scene back in 1996. Months before McConaughey's first major release ("A Time to Kill") even hit theaters, his shit-eating mug was plastered across every magazine from Vanity Fair to Newsweek - all of which egregiously touted him as the Second Coming of Paul Newman. Taking their cue from the omnipotent wizards behind the curtain (Joel Schumacher, Bob Daly, et al.), the press slavishly hopped aboard the McConaughey bandwagon and executed a P.R. blitz tantamount to brainwashing. By the time we found out whether or not he could deliver, our collective minds had already been made up, conditioned by a subliminal advertising campaign that essentially told us that McConaughey was a new golden boy. The scary thing is that it worked: "A Time To Kill" was the tenth-highest-grossing movie of that year.

Catering to a marketplace increasingly geared toward the fickle tastes and attention spans of the MTV set, the studios have begun to churn out flavors-of-the-month with the regularity of Baskin-Robbins. Every time we turn around these days, there's a new hottie shoved down our throats (is there any magazine cover Sarah Michelle Gellar hasn't appeared on yet?). It's gotten to a point where all these cosmetically impeccable teen queens have become indistinguishable from each other - blended together into one giant mass of silicone and collagen. For every Kate Hudson (the nepotistically aided offspring of Goldie Hawn) who manages to defy the beauty stigma and rise above the muck of mediocrity, there are a hundred expendable Tara Reid and Shannon Elizabeth clones ready to be blackballed come the first sign of mammary droopage.

10) The bubblegum pop resurgence
Thanks to their hackneyed lyrics, ungainly choreography, ludicrously hep stage outfits and grating personalities, boy bands like the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync have become such glaring and overused targets of ridicule I'm almost tempted to hold my tongue ... almost. The TV industry is already addicted to this kiddie crack, banking big with awards shows and concert specials. Can the big screen producers be far behind? Not since the rule of the Osmonds and the Bay City Rollers in the '70s has there been such an infestation of milquetoast teenybopper groups onto the Billboard charts. The latest strain of this musical epidemic can be traced back to shrewd Svengali Lou Pearlman - a corpulent, repugnant-looking character with the skeevy manner of a prowling pederast. Say what you will about Pearlman's questionable business practices ('N Sync sued him over his creative accounting), but give the man his props for building a multimillion-dollar cottage industry out of the assembly-line packaging of pretty, fresh-faced goy boys who individually possess utterly marginal singing, dancing and songwriting abilities. To rock-starved purists who yearn for the day when musicianship once again becomes in vogue, Pearlman's Frankensteinian monsters are the epitome of what's wrong with the record biz - soulless, synthetic pop acts designed strictly to prey on the pocketbooks and hormonal longings of pubescent girls.

By Ian Rothkerch

Ian Rothkerch is a New York writer.

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