I’ve heard many times the myth that celebrities “die in threes.” I'm not sure if they die in disproportionate patterns, but I do know that they embarrass themselves more than everyone else, in an unending stream of uncivil and inappropriate behavior. After learning of some star who has flipped out on an airplane when denied either more gin, the chance to expose themselves to the other passengers, or the freedom to dry hump their traveling companion during flight, most people ask some version of the question, “How could they act so monstrously?” My standard response to that question is, “How could they not?”
I’m not apologizing for bad conduct, but I do think there is value in looking for its cause. In my experience, it's the end result of the boundaries that society imposes on the rest of us being lifted for celebrities. (And by celebrities, I mostly mean those who gain their fame through providing entertainment to the rest of us. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner is certainly famous but probably not susceptible to the same temptations as Derek Jeter or George Clooney. And unlike Dominique Strauss-Kahn, if Jack Nicholson hits on a maid in a hotel, my guess is that the interaction goes exactly as he’d hoped, without any legal aftermath.)
In his autobiography, legendary television executive Brandon Tartikoff recounted an illuminating story Marlon Brando told him about his life after becoming famous for Streetcar Named Desire: “For a year, I never touched a door. I couldn’t touch a door if I wanted to. People were opening them for me. I could show up at the fanciest restaurant at the busiest hour and they’d say, ‘Right this way.’ I’d sit up in my house in the Hollywood Hills getting bombed and I’d be watching the news at 10 p.m. and I’d see this blonde woman doing the news and I’d call up the station. I’d ask to get her on the phone, and I’d say, ‘Hi, sweetheart, this is Marlon Brando. I think you’re real attractive. How’d you like to come over to my place when you’re done?’ And sure enough, she’d be over at my house about a half-hour later, and I’d be in bed with her. It was just like ordering Chinese food.”
The world told Brando that the restrictions the rest of us face do not apply to him. One can easily extrapolate why this same man would end up being notoriously demanding, obnoxious, unwilling to memorize his lines, and, eventually, making anti-Semitic remarks on national TV.
Charlie Sheen has been a big star since he was 21 years old. In a way, he was a star before Platoon, as his father and older brother preceded him into fame; I would conjecture that he probably heard the word “no” less often than the average person, starting in his youth, and as he matured and became more well known, he heard it far less. Like all young people, he probably had impulses that pushed him to test society’s boundaries and, as he tested them, he suffered little or no consequences. In time, what seemed dangerous and unusual became quotidian and normal. Eventually, his perception of the borders of propriety extended too far, beyond criminality and what was financially expedient for his Two and a Half Men employers, and there were negative consequences if you can call a $100 million dollar settlement and a potential new TV series negative consequences.
Ironically, the greatest influence on skewing the perspective of the famous is the very industry that has the most to lose when they run off the rails. From the beginning, stars are shown that they don’t need to be responsible for themselves the way their co-workers are. The script supervisor on a production is told to be on set at a certain time and it is expected that he or she will get there on his or her own, as instructed. Actors are shuttled everywhere by production assistants, who show up five minutes before they are supposed to be on set and guide them to where they are supposed to be. As stars grow in stature, they are afforded more leeway. Some of them wear a micro device in their ear and have an assistant read their lines to them during scenes. I know of an action film where the production spent about $1 million to digitally reduce the girth of the star. Clearly, a $500,000 bonus to lose weight would not have been enough of an incentive for him to lay off the pizza and beer for a few months before the shoot.
Obviously, not every big star is obnoxious or irresponsible. But even the more civil among them often can't help but be affected by their scrum of agents, publicists, managers, trainers, nutritionists, and assistants; this coterie seems to be friends with their employer but, unlike a true friend, they are incentivized to always tell the person who has power over them what they want to hear. I was an agent for nine years, and the single most common reason I or one of my colleagues would get fired by a client was for delivering bad news. Criticizing a client’s work or behavior was suicidal. As a producer, I am always hypervigilant about keeping a production running on schedule, chastising anyone who slows us down. But on several occasions, when an A-lister has shown up late or stayed in his or her trailer to finish a phone call after being summoned to the set, I have reacted with nothing more than the same smile and nod that they would have received from me had they arrived as planned. I’m as much of the problem as any of the other cogs in the machine — which is why I am able to keep working, I guess.
As an agent and producer, I have had small conflicts with stars who live inside a bubble. Those conversations usually follow the same pattern: I express an opinion. They express theirs. I explain what they might not be seeing in their position. They re-express exactly what they said before. I try again and offer some middle ground. They say the same thing they said before. And then I acquiesce. I imagine that from their side it's like being stuck in a Charlie Brown cartoon, with me in the place of the teacher whose voice is an incomprehensible run of vowel sounds.
The stars who do remain unaffected, in my experience, are those who either gained their fame later in life, and/or had objective influences — parents, spouses, friends — who didn’t shy away from telling them when they were wrong. There are not many who fit into this category.
But ultimately, it's often this horrific behavior that makes them bigger stars. Because isn’t the spectacle of entertainers making fools of themselves its own genre of entertainment? Who is watching TMZ? Who is reading Perez Hilton? Who is buying The Star? The same people who go to the movies and watch TV. I admit to listening to every second of Mel Gibson yelling at his baby mama and Christian Bale’s rant on the Terminator set and then the comic mash-up of both, probably about twenty times. Maybe the question we should be asking is not why do they behave that way, but rather why do we enjoy it so much?
Gavin Polone is an agent turned manager turned producer. His production company Pariah has brought you such movies and TV shows as Panic Room, Zombieland, Gilmore Girls, and Curb Your Enthusiasm.