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Jewish World Review June 1, 2001 / 10 Sivan, 5761

Michael Medved

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Consumer Reports

Hollywood's altered realities snare celebs, viewers --
IF nothing else, the recent series of high-profile Hollywood drug busts have given the lie to the old assumption that self-destructive criminal behavior stems solely from poverty and desperation.

Golden Globe-winning actor Robert Downey Jr. and the Emmy-winning creator of The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin, have proved just as helpless, just as pathetic in the grip of addiction as any destitute denizen of the inner city.

These latest victims of the entertainment-industry drug culture join a lengthy dishonor roll of adored and pampered public figures who faced well-publicized struggles with substance abuse - including such manifestly talented TV stars as Kelsey Grammer, Tim Allen, Matthew Perry and Brett Butler.

It's easy to understand why a hopeless kid in a brutal slum might feel the need temporarily to transform his nightmarish reality by altering his consciousness through drugs or drink. But if you're at the pinnacle of show-business success - with wealth, sex appeal, creative clout and mass-audience adulation - what is it about your pleasant and profoundly privileged life that you so desperately need to escape?

A thoughtful article in Entertainment Weekly recently pondered that perplexing question. Journalist Benjamin Svetkey leaned heavily on the notion that Hollywood celebrities become vulnerable to devastating addictions precisely because they live in a world that assures them that they needn't worry about the restrictions and dangers that afflict ordinary mortals.

"People want to be your friend; they're interested in giving you what you want," says a formerly addicted screenwriter who declined to give his name.

"But if you want to get off drugs, the enemy of recovery is (the belief) that you are right and special."

In other fields, however, top achievers claim that sense of "specialness" without the pervasive drug problems currently associated with Hollywood. Billionaire business leaders, prominent politicians and even professional athletes (where Darryl Strawberry's sad situation represents an exception rather than a trend) enjoy many of the prerogatives of Tinseltown stardom without the widespread substance abuse associated with stars of television and motion pictures.

The difference reflects the contrast in consequences: In most arenas of competitive endeavor, a repeatedly publicized drug problem will severely damage, or even destroy, your standing within the profession. In Hollywood, on the other hand, a trip to the Betty Ford Center or another rehab program can actually garner sympathetic attention from your colleagues and even from the public. Many industry observers predict that the shocking cocaine-and-psychedelic-mushrooms arrest of the producer of The West Wing will intensify public interest in his show and could well boost its ratings during the next season.

In a deeper sense, the persistent connection between show business and drugs reflects the unique demands of dramatic entertainment. Actors earn our respect by their success at pretending to be someone else. Their ability at projecting an artificial personality - or multiple personalities during the course of a career - draws praise for their range and depth as performers. Drugs connect to this creative endeavor with their promise of altering everyday reality and helping the user discover different, unexpected aspects of his character.

Substance abuse also mirrors the uneven rhythms of the entertainment industry - with the blindingly intense rush of performance only occasionally interrupting slow, taxing periods of preparation.

Of course, the chronic risk-takers who work in the inherently unstable atmosphere of Hollywood become addicted to this process, and any other endeavor can seem pallid and predictable in comparison.

In selling mass-media entertainment to society at large, the show-business conglomerates also peddle some of the same attractions and distractions as drug dealers. Substance abuse, for all of its dangers, provides an exhilarating opportunity to break through to another world - a world of more vivid colors and richer intensity. Movies and TV appeal to the public on the same basis - especially so during today's era of adrenaline-soaked, thrill-ride cinematic entertainment.

Producers also hope to hook the audience with the sort of abiding addiction that will keep them tuning in week after week or going back to the multiplex for repeated screenings of a favorite motion picture.

Author and social critic Marie Winn understood something profound about our chronic dependence on televised escapism when, about 20 years ago, she dubbed the tube "The Plug-In Drug."

No one would suggest that addiction to TV or motion pictures could compare in destructive power to the grip of cocaine or heroin or ecstasy on chronic users. Yet the temptingly available alternate realities offered unceasingly to consumers of pop culture, and the illusion of godlike power energizing its producers, bear an unmistakable resemblance to the allure of the most powerful narcotics.

Even though the major studios may dabble for a while with hard-hitting, even chilling views of the drug trade (such as the four-time Oscar winner, Traffic, or Johnny Depp's underappreciated Blow), the industry and some of its most prestigious stars continue to project a tolerant fascination with addiction.

Experts in drug treatment suggest that rehabilitation can only prove successful once the addict hits bottom and recognizes that he's powerless to control his situation. Since it remains highly unlikely that the entertainment industry will ever crash and burn as a community, or recognize limitations to its own power, addictions of every sort will doubtless remain an integral element of life in Hollywood.

JWR contributor, author and film critic Michael Medved, a "survivor" of his own family with three kids, hosts a daily three-hour radio talk show broadcast in more than 120 cities throughout the United States. His latest book, written together with his wife, is Saving Childhood : Protecting Our Children from the National Assault on Innocence . You may contact him by clicking here.

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© 2001, Michael Medved