What Is Shia LaBeouf’s Endgame?

BERLIN, GERMANY - FEBRUARY 09: Shia LaBeouf attends the 'Nymphomaniac Volume I' (long version) photocall during 64th Berlinale International Film Festival at Grand Hyatt Hotel on February 9, 2014 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Dominique Charriau/WireImage)
Photo: Dominique Charriau/Getty Images

Shia LaBeouf is currently sitting in a Los Angeles art gallery wearing a paper bag over his head that says “I AM NOT FAMOUS ANYMORE,” and while you could quibble with that statement based on all the press he’s been getting, there’s one sense in which it’s true: LaBeouf has now become infamous. This art show is only the latest oddity in what seems to be a prolonged campaign of weird behavior from the ex-Transformers star, who was accused of plagiarism in December when it was discovered that a short film he’d directed was lifted from artist Daniel Clowes. In the mere two months since, LaBeouf has gone on maniacal Twitter runs, given defiant interviews, stormed out of a Berlin press conference, and now mounted an eccentric art show. Is his public meltdown all part of some plan? Perhaps, but I think it may be one that LaBeouf had to improvise after the fact in order to reframe those misdeeds as an ongoing artistic statement.

LaBeouf’s current art show owes an obvious debt to Marina Abramović’s The Artist is Present, and LaBeouf does have a long history of nicking other people’s work. Last year, when he fell out of a Broadway play and shared an apology for his actions on Twitter, it wasn’t long before eagle-eyed bloggers noticed that he’d lifted almost all of his mea culpa from an essay published by Esquire in 2009. Later, Buzzfeed examined the niche comic books that LaBeouf has been writing over the last few years and found more examples of appropriation, including passages lifted from Charles Bukowski and French writer Benoît Duteurtre. (Full disclosure: I’m among the plagiarized parties, as LaBeouf lifted some sentences from an article I’d written about his short film and then repurposed them as his own in an interview he gave a year later.)

Still, the idea that he’s been planning some sort of stunt all along rings false. After all, the first comic books were released in 2011 and the short film debuted a year and a half ago, so he would have been playing a long game if the plan was always to get caught. Was there a point when LaBeouf would have revealed the supposed charade, or would he have kept quiet, continuing to accept plaudits for his passed-off work with no one ever the wiser? The more likely explanation is that once LaBeouf realized he could get away with these initial bits of plagiarism, he simply kept doing it, each act of appropriation its own sort of shortcut towards the artistic credibility he has aspired to since exiting Transformers three years ago. Once LaBeouf was found out, he then tried to reverse-engineer a reason for his past behavior, aggressively doubling down on the charges of plagiarism with a raft of Twitter apologies that were now so blatantly lifted from famous sources that you couldn’t miss his intent.

His antics have continued to escalate since, to the point where they’ve become almost domineering — as if he’s so aggrieved that he should have to apologize that he’ll make you wish you never asked him to. Still, the notion of an art show at least implies some sort of endpoint for his public behavior. Does this mean that three years from now — or even three weeks from now — LaBeouf will cop to all of this as a finite performance art stunt, give a post-show interview to the New York Times where he promises to straighten up and fly right, and then seem rehabilitated enough to become one of our most in-demand actors? In short, can LaBeouf engineer the Joaquin Phoenix redemption arc?

This is the tricky part, and one that I suspect won’t be as easy as simply ending the performance-art antics: While actors and directors clamor to work with Joaquin Phoenix, who’s eccentric but remains a totally committed collaborator, LaBeouf has proved to be a much more divisive presence on set. At 27 years of age, he’s antagonized a laundry list of former colleagues, including his Lawless costar Mia Wasikowska (LaBeouf bragged that he would show up to set so drunk and disorderly that “she was calling her attorney, like, ‘Get me the fuck out of here’”), Alec Baldwin (with whom he feuded while working on the Broadway play Orphans), and Brad Pitt (rumor has it that on the set of their recent film Fury, LaBeouf refused to shower for weeks on end and even filed down his own tooth to better get in character). While making the Transformers trilogy, he got into fisticuffs with director Michael Bay and publicly revealed a hookup with his costar Megan Fox, an embarrassing assignation that meant that she’d been stepping out on her husband Brian Austin Green.

It’s nothing new for a former child star to eagerly burn some bridges while transitioning into an adult career (see: Cyrus, Miley) but LaBeouf isn’t simply setting fire to his former franchise or the memory of his cute-kid teen years: He’s blowing up every working relationship he’s ever had. LaBeouf may not care much about rehabilitating his image with the public, but if he wants to continue working in film, he’ll have to repair a lot of severed relationships with his fellow actors and do some real work putting his future costars at ease. Already, the Post is reporting that LaBeouf’s behavior has cost him a job in the star-packed thriller Triple Nine, which will topline Kate Winslet, Michael B. Jordan, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Casey Affleck. (LaBeouf’s role likely went to recent cast addition Aaron Paul.)

Plenty of snarky pundits would consider the loss of LaBeouf’s Hollywood career to be no great shakes — and indeed, he’s picked some studio stinkers to star in over the last few years — but that’s a shame because underneath it all, LaBeouf can be a very appealing performer. My first real introduction to LaBeouf was through his appearance on Project Greenlight a decade ago, where he blew the novice directors away with his formidable talent and natural, unforced charisma. Even in a franchise as ridiculous as Transformers, LaBeouf never telegraphed that he was above the material: Instead, he shouted at those giant robots like he was about to burst into tears, almost movingly committed to making that trash sing.

The worrisome thing is that his new film Nymphomaniac, which is meant to signal a career change into more difficult fare, is not LaBeouf’s best work. The character he plays is a tough one, suddenly transforming from a grubby motorbike punk into a polished businessman with little explanation, and while one can guess why he took the role — like many former child stars, he’s in the middle of his Naked Moment — LaBeouf looks unmoored and mannered for the first time onscreen, his accent and affectations a complete put-on. In other words, it’s another stunt. Instead of relying on that wellspring of honest emotion that he used to tap into so easily, it seems that LaBeouf now has to aggressively challenge himself or his costars in order to justify showing up to set at all.

And maybe that’s what this all comes down to. Shia’s paper bag says, “I AM NOT FAMOUS ANYMORE,” but he’s been famous for a long time, and acting for nearly his entire life. At this point, his celebrity and his career are second nature, and he’s so narcotized by their constancy that he’s aggressively trying to blow them up, in the same way that he can’t take a role now without purposefully creating obstacles for himself. But does he truly need those obstacles? When I sat across from Shia yesterday, he didn’t say anything, he didn’t do anything, and he hardly moved a muscle … yet we had a significant emotional connection, a sure sign that he still possesses the ability to move an audience. I’d like to think he could do it even without the paper bag on his head. I wonder if he wants to.

What Is Shia LaBeouf’s Endgame?