Shia LaBeouf: A cool kid's sad decline

A Thursday arrest is just the latest twist

By Mary Elizabeth Williams
June 27, 2014 9:11PM (UTC)
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Shia LaBeouf (AP/Joel Ryan)

Adding yet another unfortunate outburst to his increasingly lengthy résumé of erratic behavior, 28-year-old occasional actor/"not famous anymore" person Shia LaBeouf was arrested Thursday evening after acting out during the Alan Cumming Broadway revival of "Cabaret."

New York's Eyewitness News reports that he was taken away in handcuffs after lighting up a cigarette and refusing to leave of his own volition. LaBeouf has been charged with disorderly conduct and harassment. A witness told reporters, "He was quite a mess. He had a torn shirt, he had a cigarette, he was blending into the crowd." And the New York Post reports that he behaved bizarrely toward the cops, allegedly telling them "I’ll f–k you up," spitting and using a homophobic slur. 


It's been a rough transition into adulthood for the former "Even Stevens" star. He has a string of arrests and altercations going back nearly a decade for incidents involving trespassing, drunk driving. In the past two years, though, he's really upped his game, strange behavior-wise. There was a famous falling out with noted impulse control avoider Alec Baldwin that led to his exit from the Broadway play "Orphans" – and his oddly familiar sounding apology for the fiasco. In December, he debuted online his first directorial effort, "," and soon after found himself apologizing again, for lifting both dialogue and visuals wholesale from Daniel Clowes’ graphic novella "Justin M. Damiano" -- and doing so with a mea culpa he took straight out of Yahoo! Answers. Definition of irony: cutting and pasting, without attribution, the phrase "Merely copying isn’t particularly creative work." In February, he appeared on the red carpet for his latest film, "Nymphomaniac," sporting a paper bag over his head – a look that he also seemed to have cribbed from elsewhere.

It's hard to believe now, but at one point LaBeouf was the Steven Spielberg protégé being touted as "the next Tom Hanks," an Emmy award winner while still in his teens. Seven years ago, at age 20, he was talking about attending Yale and trying to have an acting career with "Michael Caine's longevity." Now the once promising "Transformers" and "Wall Street Never Sleeps" star has instead become the difficult patron who disrupts your evening at the theater. And his latest setback comes in the same week as a much-forwarded New York Times story on the perils of early success, "Cool at 13, Adrift at 23." In it, writer Jan Hoffman quotes University of Virginia psychology professor Joseph P. Allen, whose latest research indicates that "The fast-track kids didn’t turn out O.K…. They are doing more extreme things to try to act cool, bragging about drinking three six-packs on a Saturday night, and their peers are thinking, 'These kids are not socially competent.' They’re still living in their middle-school world." As Hoffman explains, "When compared to their socially slower-moving middle-school peers, [young adults once considered "cool kids"] had a 45 percent greater rate of problems resulting from alcohol and marijuana use and a 40 percent higher level of actual use of those substances. They also had a 22 percent greater rate of adult criminal behavior, from theft to assaults."

Of course, despite the perpetual media casting of former child stars as universal train wrecks, they're not all Amanda Bynes and Lindsay Lohan. Exhibits A though G: Natalie Portman, Justin Timberlake, Ryan Gosling, Neil Patrick Harris, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jason Bateman and Alyssa Milano. But LaBeouf comes from a difficult background – he has a Vietnam vet father who served time as a sex offender and fought heroin addiction. While LaBeouf was still a kid doing "Even Stevens," he became his dad's legal guardian and accompanied him to AA meetings. Now, after a childhood and adolescence spent working to build a career and take care of his family, a youth of fame and money most teens never dream of, it's not hard to see how a former ultimate cool kid might find himself approaching 30 and deeply adrift. Thursday's arrest was just the latest sad turn for a talented man burdened with the often toxic combo of early fame and a family history of substance abuse, a man who, in 2008, GQ understatedly noted, "seems to have inherited a wee delinquent streak."

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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