Kirsten Dunst. Robert Downey Jr. Drew Barrymore. All of these famous actors have struggled with substance abuse.
To say substance abuse is a problem within the Hollywood culture is an understatement; substance abuse is an issue that has been destroying lives since the black and white movie days of Judy Garland. And now in the wake of Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s untimely death due to an on-going heroin addiction, substance abuse has been thrust into the spotlight once again. From overdosing on prescription pills, excessive alcohol consumption, and even the addiction to hard drugs such as heroin; there is an epidemic of substance abuse that continues to prevail in the Hollywood and celebrity world. Is this something that comes with the territory of the celebrity status party scene? Or is there a deeper reason behind the substance abuse running rampant in Hollywood?
Most people would assume that with the notoriety and wealth that comes with being an actor creates an easy access to drugs and drinking, and it does. But beyond the party scene motivation, actors and actresses turn to substances to aid or cope with their acting endeavors for years. One such example was Judy Garland. Through the 1930’s up until her death in 1969, Judy was consistently given drugs prescribed to either invigorate her or tranquilize her, which constantly made her ill, turning her world upside down. Judy was given these “uppers” and “downers” to handle the pressures of adolescent stardom, and began seeing a psychiatrist at age 18. Later, after several divorces and years of drug abuse, Judy Garland was worse than ever, diagnosed with hepatitis and continuing to use sleeping pills, pep pills, diet medicines and nerve tonics.
The question remains, “Why did Judy Garland resort to all of these prescription drugs?” It is well known that Judy had an unquenchable desire to be loved and acclaimed, pushing her to perform with an exuberance unparalleled by an actor or actress of her time. Near the beginning of her career, Judy stated, “As for my feelings toward ‘Over the Rainbow,’ it’s become part of my life. It is so symbolic of all my dreams and wishes that I’m sure that’s why people sometimes get tears in their eyes when they hear it.” Judy was in pursuit of the whimsical happiness described in her most popular song for her entire life. Her life was a constant high; performing for adoring crowds and searching for never satisfying fame. In order to keep her vibrant and one-of-a-kind performances fresh she resorted to the “uppers” which led to the use of “downers” to bring her out of her performance ready persona. One thing led to another, and it eventually became a deadly cycle of addiction and dependency to keep the acting alive, or help her fall asleep at night.
Judy Garland is just one case of substance abuse, but this begs the question: are the roles in movies becoming too much of a burden for method actors to portray? And is there a line being crossed in the pursuit for the perfect artistic expression in a movie?
Actors and actresses need to invest and support their fellow actors struggling with the problems of addictions that come with fame and the acting life.
This past weekend, Academy Award winning actor, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, was found dead in his apartment’s bathtub with a needle in his left arm. Scattered throughout his apartment were envelopes with the words “Ace of Spades” written all over them: the street term for heroin. Known to have been battling a drug addiction for over 20 years, Phillip Seymour Hoffman won an Oscar for Best Actor in the film Capote, and in his career was nominated two more times for Oscars. Phillip chose acting roles that called for him to truly transform himself into his characters. In an article entitled, “A Higher Calling,” form the New York Times Magazine in December of 2008, he had this to say about his acting, “I heard that (Clint) Eastwood is saying that (Gran Torino) will be his last film as an actor. Theirs part of me that feels that way during almost every movie. On ‘Synecdoche,’ I paid a price. I went to the office and punched my card in, and I thought about a lot of things, and some of them involved losing myself. You try to be artful for the film, but it’s hard. I’d finish a scene, walk right off the set, go in the bathroom, close the door and just take some breaths to regain my composure. In the end, I’m grateful to feel something so deeply, and I’m also grateful that it’s over. And that’s my life.”
There’s a reason why Phillip Seymour Hoffman is an Academy Award winning and nominated actor. For the authenticity of his film roles, he dove deep into the psyche and experience of the characters he portrayed, which from the quote, often resulted in him finding difficulty shaking off the emotions and stress of his character roles.
We’ve seen this all too familiarly in the life and death of Heath Ledger. At the end of filming for 2008’s summer blockbuster, The Dark Knight, Heath Ledger was found dead in his apartment with an accidental overdose of prescription medication. Rumors surrounded his death, claiming his role as the Joker in the second film of the Batman trilogy took a toll on his mental health. A role shrouded in darkness, in which it’s reported that Heath locked himself in his hotel room for weeks preparing for the role. It’s unsure whether the prescription drugs were meant to combat a nasty cold ailing the young actor at the time, or whether the overdose was a coping mechanism.
In 1999, a young Robert Downey Jr. was sentenced to prison for three years on drug charges and failing to show up in court. After his release 12 months later for good behavior, Mel Gibson sought out the troubled actor, wanting to get him back on the right track. Gibson ended up paying Robert Downey Jr.’s acting insurance on his next film project because the actor was such a liability, but this generous act was just the push RDJ needed. Today, Robert Downey Jr. is drug free, and one of Hollywood’s highest paid actors. The relationship between Mel Gibson and RDJ is a model that Hollywood needs to adopt, more men and women willing to come to the aid of those heading down a wrong path. Actors and actresses need to invest and support their fellow actors struggling with the problems of addictions that come with fame and the acting life. More accountability could prevent the untimely death of some of Hollywood’s brightest stars, and set an example for a young generation of actors and actresses.