The Big Young Hollywood Hangover
Following a boom in the late 1990’s, young Hollywood experienced a bust in the early aughts as the appetite for youth-skewing movies like Scream and She’s All That dried up. Like the Brat Pack of the 80’s, the TV actors-turned-movie-stars of the 90’s found themselves facing mass layoffs. The May 2002 issue of Movieline magazine contained some thoughts on the fickle fortunes of Young Hollywood as well as some helpful (and sometimes questionable) tips on how to survive.
Back in the antediluvian era, which is to say toward the end of 1996, young Hollywood actors were struggling, pleading, worrying, preening, strutting and partying the way young actors have always done. Nobody saw it coming. When what seemed like a classically exploitative little horror flick moved into the holiday lineup, nobody said, “Hey, that movie Scream–there’s one to watch.” Quite the opposite. Brought to the screen by clever hack director Wes Craven, Scream looked to be the kind of small-budget, small-expectation nutball of a movie that might pull in a decent number of adolescents. A trail-blazing, sequel-spewing blockbuster it surely did not resemble, but that’s what Scream turned out to be.
Whether because of Scream or simply in synch with its wisdom that the youth of America was eager for its generational experience of being condescended/catered to by Hollywood’s B-movie manufacturing mentality (it had been about a decade since the last Hollywood teen craze, the one led by Molly Ringwald and the Brat Pack), a host of other teen entertainments sprang to life. Not only was I Know What You Did Last Summer a hit, but it spawned a sequel and made stars of Jennifer Love Hewitt and Freddie Prinze Jr. The gargantuan teen craze bubble that was beginning to inflate turned into a wildly self-expanding, gaseous phenomenon when the teen-beloved high-end Titanic hit at the end of 1997. Two years later, teens flocked to the Pygmalion story She’s All That, making Freddie Prinze Jr. into box-office gold and creating a star of Rachael Leigh Cook. Suddenly, going to the movies became an intensely desirable activity.
Hollywood rushed to fill the pipeline with teenybopper stuff of every stripe, from Varsity Blues to American Pie. A new version of a tried-and-true studio formula went into assembly line mode: gather up some TV-series stars who’ll work cheap, put them with fast-moving, non-auteur directors in passably written vehicles, pay more to market the puppies than you did to make the movies, and rake in the profits. On television, the teen craze had already started and proceeded to get bigger in a megatrend best, if not accurately, summarized by the two letters WB. From “Dawson’s Creek” to “Roswell”–you know you watched one of these no matter how old you are. With each new series came a new crew of stars to pop into new teen flicks.
In the five years from 1996 to 2001, Young Hollywood experienced a heyday that paralleled the Internet and larger high-tech mania that had know-nothing-but-a-little-programming youngsters earning preposterous salaries at blinder-wearing dot-coms. The win-win link between the two trends was obvious: if everything that’s young rules and the young love high-tech, then you sell everything to the young, especially high-tech things, and you use high-tech means to do it. Every segment of the American economy with the faintest claim on the short attention span of the country’s teenagers (meaning just about everything but the AARP) went into greed-fueled overdrive, dreaming of the pots of new dispensable “income” teens were said to be in possession of (God knows where they were getting it–from their parents? From working at Yogurt World?). Even if the actors who made up Young Hollywood had never heard of tulipmania or even loosely understood the inevitability of a bear market down the line (and if the heads of major corporations and investment houses didn’t, why should Jennifer Love Hewitt?), they would have had no time to worry. There was work to be had, lots of it. It was being doled out about as indiscriminately as Hollywood has ever doled it out. During pilot season, TV executives wanted to hear only about teen ensemble projects. Studio executives couldn’t get enough pitches for teen scare flicks, high school romances or vulgarity contests. There hasn’t been a time in recent Hollywood history when so many people were hot at the same time. The threatened strike in the year leading up to the summer of 2001 added yet another artificial boost in demand for young flesh as studios loaded up on product in defense against shutdown.
We might have guessed that when a movie in which Kevin Spacey almost does it with teen Mena Suvari wins the Oscar for Best Picture, something has to give. All this had to come to an end, despite Hollywood’s powers of positive thinking (and the associated magic of heavy drinking), and it did, well before September 11th changed the tone of the nation. Teens had seen one too many ugly-duckling-chick-gets-popular-jock flicks. For that matter, most of the teens who’d fallen for these types of films weren’t teens anymore. By God, they were old enough to join the Army. And after September 11th, it looked like they just might do that.
In Young Hollywood, the last six months have seen a breathtaking shift in mood. A year ago, all but the savviest players in the Young Hollywood scene were still hanging from the chandeliers. Since September 11th, there has been a rash of high anxiety and dismay. Of course, many young actors are still getting terrific roles. Mandy Moore just broke out big time with A Walk to Remember and Natalie Portman is the star of the most anticipated film of 2002, Star Wars: Episode II– Attack of the Clones. But there’s no Scream 4 or even a She’s All That 2 on the way this summer.
Predictably enough, Young Hollywood’s response to all this involves an intensified dedication to booze (club attendance is sky-high) and drugs (including heroin). It also involves an even more assiduous sucking up to directors and casting directors at all points of social contact. And it encompasses the usual gym, coffee and yoga obsessions that keep the mind from wandering into desperate places.
Seasoned insiders talk about how the world of Young Hollywood has “downsized” just like so many other areas of the economy, and speak about the town’s perennially high “attrition rate.” But to make the argument that the movie industry is just like other industries is to admit ultimate defeat– Hollywood didn’t get invented to be like other industries. The place isn’t cut out to be a land of quiet desperation, a glammed-up rust belt.
Obviously, if wholesale depression is to be held at bay, some facile philosophizing is called for. And since the population of Young Hollywood watches itself more obsessively than any other population on earth, it makes sense to contemplate various Young Hollywood careers for lessons large and small in how or how not to approach life as a young actor in Hollywood these days. The bits of advice presented below are all drawn from careers that are far from over and that therefore offer solace to young performers inclined to think that The Big Young Hollywood Hangover might be fatal.
1. Pay Homage to the Patron Saint of Teen Boom Vets. Surely you’ve surfed onto a cable channel and been transfixed by the still baby-faced Johnny Depp making his blank way through an episode of the one-time megahit series “21 Jump Street”? Not many people, maybe not even Depp himself, could have imagined that the youngster of those days, during which he starred in Scream predecessor A Nightmare on Elm Street, would become the respected, if inscrutable, actor whose resume includes Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow and Chocolat. Hollywood insiders couldn’t understand what rising A-list teen actress Winona Ryder was thinking when she fell for Johnny Depp way back–that’s how completely he was dismissed at the time. He was part of a teen craze and he didn’t look to do much better than most parts of TV teen crazes–another series, maybe, then a long decline like that of the recently deceased Troy Donahue. Depp not only defied that fate, he’s defied any recognizable fate, which is why he’s worshipped by Young Hollywood today for his ineffable cool and for the talent he took extremely personal, rather exotic custody of. If as unlikely a prospect as Johnny Depp went from teen idol to bohemian prince to beloved expatriate artist, who’s to say that one of the boys from this latest teen craze can’t transform himself in a similarly unpredictable manner? Any who seek to do so, though, had better think about the big-money stardom Depp steered stubbornly clear of.
2. Remember That Life Is Usually Long and Careers Can Be Too. Many teens out there first caught sight of Kirsten Dunst in one of her several TV movies or in the recent film Bring It On, and saw in her what can be seen in several of her peers–solid professionalism. The rest of us remember her eerily great performance opposite Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt in the weird classic Interview With the Vampire, and realize that at an extremely young age, she possessed a considerable gift that had more odds against it than the average Young Hollywood performer knows about. When you do a strange, demanding, high-profile role like that at age 11, what do you do for the next decade or so, until you’re old enough to play parts that ask something of you and give something back? The answer, of course, is that you just keep working, and you win some, you lose some, you learn and you hopefully find some way to grow up while you’re at it, which isn’t easy in Hollywood. Dunst has been in excellent, good, indifferent and bad movies. She has strategically managed, however, to telegraph the longevity she intends to have with performances like the ones in The Virgin Suicides and crazy/beautiful. She’s one of several actors who predate the bubble and will survive the bubble because they never really became “of” the bubble, a group that includes Christina Ricci, Julia Stiles, Thora Birch, Anna Paquin, Natalie Portman and a number of others.
3. Take a Look at Halle Berry. Hollywood actresses are viciously enslaved to the process of relentless preening, as much now, despite feminism, as when studios took the hands-on approach to people like Judy Garland and Rita Hayworth. The town’s judgments about a young female’s appearance are very harsh and they matter every bit as much as young females hope and fear. It’s a wonder there’s any time for acting when so much attention has to be paid to hair, skin, thighs, etc. With a career lifetime usually shorter than an actor’s, and a demand for knockout looks far higher than anything placed on boys, actresses face worse odds than actors in a game they all have terrible odds in to begin with. Now they look out on the weird landscape of after-the-deluge Hollywood. So many of these young women have played Hollywood starlet to the hilt in their off hours (in Hollywood, most hours are off hours if you’re not on a series). Hollywood parties in the last five or six years have been overpopulated with cute, underfed, breast-implanted girls in semi-lingerie and stilettos. It’s a sad, desperate sight for anyone who realizes the drama of competitive submission that the sexiest practitioners are being wittingly and unwittingly put through. Some of these girls will survive, but most will be pharmaceutically quelling terror before the mirror for the rest of their days with not much to show for it. Well, some of these girls are nitwits and unless they can brand their bimbo-ness a la Pamela Anderson, it’s a grim prospect they face.
Think about Halle Berry for a moment, though, and you realize that Hollywood sometimes does hold miracles. For years and years, Berry has had the kind of starlet beauty that is so vivid, so intense, it’s the very first tiling people comment on. She had the race issue to contend with, but equally she had the starlet stigma to fight. There was no sign, not even as late as the good, award-winning but hardly revelatory Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, that Berry had Monster’s Ball in her. Now here she is with Academy approval, and with the assurance that anyone who actually saw the movie will never underrate her again.
4. Quit While You’re Ahead. Scream vet Skeet Ulrich had the big heat on him a few years ago, and there was reason enough for it. He was young, gifted, good-looking and he’d been in a massive hit. He had enough going for him–even though the major prestige event of his career, starring in the Ang Lee film Ride With the Devil, turned out to be a disappointment–that even if his phone stopped ringing for a few weeks he had a basis for hoping for a workable career. Then Ulrich up and moved to Virginia and got married. Word is that Ulrich never liked the life of an actor, which is entirely understandable, and decided to drop out. The wonder is that more people don’t do this. There were reports that Kate Winslet had announced her retirement a while back, but she obviously recanted. Nobody seems able to give up the activity of acting once they get paid for it, and even if they could give up the luxury and risk of pretending for a living, they can’t give up the unlimited hopefulness and inflated optimism that life in Hollywood fosters. Not even when the bubble has popped deafeningly and their lives suddenly amount to a tap dance done in a slow-motion earthquake. Ulrich should be a hero to his ex-colleagues and many of them should heed his wisdom. Then again, perhaps they’re just waiting for him to come back.
5. Remember You Can Recover From Being a Jerk. Nothing leads to stupid, witless, adolescent excess like Young Hollywood success, and nobody is less open to reasonable guidance than an overly successful Young Hollywood actor. Most actors don’t quite recover from being the semi-asshole that Hollywood turned them into when they were young, though perhaps they become more stylish in their indulgence and subtler at rationalization. But some do grow up. It’s possible. Leonardo DiCaprio got slammed with a far bigger tsunami of success, excess and tabloid press than most, and, being young, he made tactically dumb moves and became famously ambivalent, which is hardly surprising. So were dozens of others less gifted than he. Odds are, though, that after wasting his time on The Beach and earning a reputation for frequenting nightclubs and courting New York City’s most beautiful ladies, he’ll show us in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York that he was a very good actor before Titanic and he’s still a very good actor. Insecurity, arrogance, vanity, ego, anger, narcissism, etc.–nobody in Hollywood lacks in these things. But even if you can’t truly grow up in Hollywood, you can get a working grip on the worst of immaturity.
6. Modesty Can Do Wonders. Remember that little scene in Ocean’s 11 when Brad Pitt is teaching a bunch of Young Hollywood actors to play poker? The young dudes self-effacingly playing themselves in that scene were Shane West from “Once and Again,” Barry Watson of TV’s “7th Heaven,” Topher Grace of “That ’70s Show” and Joshua Jackson of “Dawson’s Creek.” Any of these young actors could have told himself he was too big to be doing a cameo in anything, but they all came to the conclusion that doing anything for Steven Soderbergh was a good idea and being in a movie with some of the biggest stars in Hollywood wasn’t bad either. They were right. The teen craze made leaps from TV to film not only easier than ever before but positively commonplace. But there are leaps and there are leaps. Taking small parts in prestige films is what smart agents and managers tell youngsters to do, and you can see that some of them have taken the advice. “Roswell'”s Jason Behr took a small role in Lasse Hallstrom’s The Shipping News and did better than his costar Brendan Fehr, who took a lead in The Forsaken. “Dawson’s Creek” darling Katie Holmes has been doing this for years and has worked for Ang Lee, Curtis Hanson and Sam Raimi. Now she has a reputation for being solid and interesting, and she’s landed the nice job of starring for Oscar-winning Traffic scriptwriter-turned-director Stephen Gaghan in the thriller Abandon. The high anxiety of a flattened-out Young Hollywood is a lot more manageable when you do what these actors have done.
7. There’s Life After Hype. Remember when the lovely and almost completely unknown young actress Gretchen Mol appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair, where stars of the magnitude of Madonna were wont to flaunt their celebrity? It was a big deal at the time because all Mol had to promote was a small role in Rounders as hot-as-hell Matt Damon’s girlfriend and a bit part opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in Woody Allen’s Celebrity–nothing that would warrant this level of hype. Under normal circumstances she would barely have qualified for a place among the actresses who crowd onto the Hollywood issue cover of Vanity Fair. When Rounders came out and tanked, and her role turned out to be minor eye-candy in any case, it was possible to argue that the Vanity Fair cover had done more harm than good. But Gretchen Mol was very gracious about the whole thing, and her publicist made a clever move–she didn’t prevent Mol from doing inside stories for small magazines just because she’d been on the cover of Vanity Fair. Mol took the best of the roles she was offered, kept going and a while later was getting respectful notices for her stage work in Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things. Now she’ll star for LaBute in the film version of the play, and who knows, she might end up with a legitimate Vanity Fair cover somewhere down the road. All the other young actresses who’ve gotten much more press than any of their accomplishments would merit, and now face a quieter phone, can take encouragement. You may never work again, but then again, maybe you will. Not buying your own hype makes it easier to take either way.
8. Logic Is Irrelevant in Hollywood. There are important similarities between Tinseltown and the lottery: If your chance of winning the lottery by buying one ticket is not statistically different from winning the lottery with five tickets (both are approximately one in 10 kazillion), then turning into the next Tom Cruise or Julia Roberts is no less difficult now than it was when you were dreaming about it three or four years ago. But if young actors were vulnerable to logic at all, they wouldn’t be in Hollywood to begin with, so they probably aren’t able to comfort themselves with thoughts like this. So why not go with complete lack of logic? Take Colin Farrell, for example. He’s the charismatic young actor most Americans might barely have heard of, but still Hollywood has been handing him role after role. He’s even been given large sums of money to “star” in a film when there’s been no proof that he’s capable of opening a picture. Most actors start getting plum roles when the public anoints them at the box office, not when studios start vying for their services with no public endorsement. But Hollywood gets this way sometimes, creating more Industry hype than the press could ever dream of drumming up. Farrell is good, as anyone who saw Joel Schumacher’s Tigerland the obscure little film that started the talk, knows. But that doesn’t explain the run Farrell has been on, and, given the results of his run so far (American Outlaws tanked, Hart’s War tanked), it doesn’t explain why he’s still on it. If starring with Tom Cruise in Minority Report this summer finally justifies everything Farrell has been given, he’ll still be one of the luckiest young actors Hollywood ever took a fancy to. Young actors who’ve lost roles to Farrell and believe his ability to work a room has given him an unfair edge are taking the wrong lesson from his experience. In times like these when the simple numbers are against them, they should be pleased that Farrell demonstrates just how blithely logic can be tossed out the window when you contemplate your destiny.
9. Pretend the Bubble Never Happened. Life is grim enough for actors who flew high over the last four or five years and now see few projects even to read for. But they’re at or near the top of the Hollywood pyramid scheme, the mass of which is made up of young actors who saw no real success when success was as available as it ever gets in showbiz. For the throng who had, at best, small parts in films, the sense that Halley’s Comet just graced the sky for its allotted time and won’t be back for an eternity must be palpable. Naomi Watts is the actress anyone in this sort of despair can gain solace from. Watts is no longer officially part of Young Hollywood, since she’s past her 30th year. She managed to be around throughout the madness of the bubble without ever really benefiting from it. She remained, in fact, virtually invisible, despite having acted in Australia and America for many years and being physically present in a town desperate for young talent. Now she’s on the Hollywood issue cover of Vanity Fair with good reason, having given a literally eye-opening performance in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. Lynch is one of the gifted directors in Hollywood who inevitably sort through the masses and the hype for those actors whose qualities serve their purposes. Curtis Hanson, Cameron Crowe, Robert Towne and others do the same thing. No bubbles or post-bubble doldrums ever change that.
10. Ya Gotta Love It. It’s true that movies of more-dubious-than-usual merit are no longer being propelled en masse into the studio and independent pipelines. And there’s no arguing with the fact that fewer producers are eager to cast a bunch of young actors in a movie just because they’re young. But Hollywood has been through this many times by now and the larger, more beautiful truths of the town abide through thick and thin. This is still a town where a guy like Charlie Sheen and a gal like Denise Richards can find each other and in their love reaffirm the eternal possibility of complete renaissance in the face of discouragement. There is a perfection to this union that puts a smile to the lips of even the most jaded observers of Young Hollywood. If fact, the more jaded, the better. For here we have a prince of Young Hollywood past (and, as a second generation thespian, a special prince at that), who, in the process of surviving his own Young Hollywood era, has obliterated distinctions between high and low movie culture by starring in films like Platoon and Hot Shots! in the same lifetime; defied the conventions of Hollywood denial by owning up to hilariously objectionable deeds and opinions; and reinvented notions of success by making it seem like a career triumph to be replacing a beloved, retiring star in an old TV sitcom. His wife-to-be is a starlet whose career blossomed precisely with the just-past teen craze (though she was no teen), beginning with her role as the pneumatic space cadet in Starship Troopers, continuing with the commendable Wild Things, in which she displayed particular style while washing the car in a soaking-wet top and short shorts, and including her stint as the world’s least believable nuclear scientist in The World Is Not Enough. Richards has protested on occasion that she is not a bimbo (she may not have used those exact words, of course), so it is particularly touching that she’s fallen for Sheen, who’s been pretty up-front about his appreciation not only of bimbos but easy ladies of a more professional nature. Don’t anybody try to tell us that Hollywood isn’t a great place when two such awesome Young Hollywood vets–each from a different era–can find true love together and maybe even make a future Sheen to lead a teen craze of his own. If Charlie and Denise work fast, their kid will be ready for the craze after the one that’s already a gleam in the eye of Bruce and Demi’s brood. It’s impossible to feel hungover when you think about this, Young Hollywood.