Maybe it’s part of some postimpeachment cycle of sexual amnesty, but the film world this summer is doling out second chances to some of its own members found guilty of unauthorized lust. The most notable comeback is that of Hugh Grant, who seems to have crafted an effective career-rehab strategy since his 1995 arrest for stolen moments with Divine Brown. First he begged for
mercy, then he disappeared from the radar screen. Currently, in the hope that the meek shall inherit renewed A-list status, he’s capping off his penance by playing humble, unassuming, not-really-horny types in two new films: Notting Hill and Mickey Blue-Eyes, due out this August. Meanwhile, videophile Rob Lowe is returning to the big screen, hoping to profit from his friendship with Mike Myers by playing the young Robert Wagner in the Austin Powers sequel. Fellow transgressor Paul Reubens has even snagged a role as “The Spleen” in this summer’s dysfunctional-superhero epic Mystery Men.
Celebrity bad behavior, whether patently illegal or simply in bad taste, is just the most tabloid-friendly form of downward mobility in Hollywood; it eclipses more prosaic descents brought about by aging, falling out of vogue, or making too many enemies. Indeed,
given the harsh odds, perhaps destroying one’s own career should be reevaluated as a sort of proactive form of self-
empowerment, a kamikaze ethos that vows, “I’ll take myself down before
Hollywood does.” Unfortunately, when good celebrities go bad, they tend to be as unoriginal as most Hollywood screenplays. In the current pantheon of
downward slides, there are certain standards of excess that need to be met or exceeded in order to merit press coverage: speeding in one’s car with a concealed weapon and bags of heroin (Robert Downey Jr.), seeking out one’s estranged wife at fashion shows (Mickey Rourke), and trashing one’s hotel room while naked and on crack (Daniel Baldwin).
Career-rehab strategies, in turn, can range from reasonably effective groveling to accusing the world of hypocrisy, which tends to backfire. Charlie Sheen characterized his “Bad Boy Network” of rehab buddies Downey and Slater as “casualties of young Los Angeles,” a completely un-trendy explanation in the survivor-not-
victim ’90s. There’s always the self-parody approach to damage control, as when Christian Slater did time for domestic
battery and then played a bachelor-party psychopath in Very Bad Things. However, this tongue-in-cheek relationship to one’s own police record doesn’t really say “atonement” to people. The surest path to redemption is a kind of masochistic humility that quietly trumpets one’s return to the straight and narrow. Juliette Lewis disappeared without fanfare after 1996’s The Evening Star, kicked her drug habit, and then appeared in the wholesome role of a mentally challenged woman in Disney’s The Other Sister.
In the end, there’s no comeback calculus for Hollywood’s fallen stars, only an invisible line that some celebrities cross when they become known more as troublemakers than as actors. Everyone agrees that Robert Downey Jr. is gifted, but his protracted and noisy arrest-rehab-release cycle, as well as the gallingly preferential treatment he received relative to non-celebrity drug convicts (he was allowed to complete filming In Dreams during his “incarceration”), mandates a prolonged hiatus in his Less Than Zero lifestyle. And when all else fails, there’s always the power of positive thinking. As a contemplative Charlie Sheen observed some months ago, “I do not have a girlfriend, I am out of work, and I am in treatment. But I am happy.”