The House That Jack Built
Ultimately, it’s more of an inconsistent cry into the void than the conversation starter it could have been.
Does Hollywood Sell Drugs to Kids? --Cover headline, Parade Magazine, July 21, 1985
By Roger Ebert (1985)
The Parade article lists the many movies in which drinking and drug use are portrayed as glamorous and acceptable, and the small handful of anti-drug movies. The implication is that Hollywood is a pro-drug town.
These are stories from the New Hollywood:
The actress is 25 years old, the star of half a dozen major recent films. She sits down to brunch in a seaside Malibu restaurant and orders a Virgin Mary.
“And be sure it’s a virgin,” she tells the wait ress.
“You not drinking today?” asks her publicist.
“Today?” says the actress. “I've gone two years and three months, one day at a time.”
The conversation turns to her favorite AA meetings, in cluding one out in the San Fernando Valley that she likes because she doesn’t run into any movie industry people there. “In Beverly Hills, there are more stars at the AA meetings than at the Academy Awards,” she says.
* * *
The studio head is 52 years old, with the perfectly groomed Ivy League look of a Harvard MBA graduate. He is the only man in the restaurant on Melrose Avenue who is wearing a tie. He is talking about another studio’s recent major box-office bomb.
“I wouldn’t have touched that project with a 10-foot pole,” he says. “That was a cocaine movie and everybody knew it.”
“It wasn’t about cocaine,” protests a luncheon companion.
“Not about cocaine,” he says. “Made on cocaine. They always have the same problem. They have a lot of energy, but no organizing ability. So they sit there day after day, filming the same scenes over and over again.”
* * *
The agent wears the gold chains that are a badge of his leisure hours. He sits by the side of a pool at the Majestic Hotel in Cannes and orders a $5 glass of Perrier.
“My agency is known as one of the sober agencies,” he says. “You don’t have to be in Hollywood long to know what agency to go with if you use drugs, and what agency to go with if you don’t. Some movie deals are put together with cocaine implied as part of the deal. Other projects, the word goes out that the people on this movie are straight and they don’t want any drugs around.
“The same goes with rock groups. There are coke tours and straight tours. The rock stars who don’t use drugs are fanatics about not having any drugs around them. They’ll fire a guy who uses drugs. Some of the concert tours are as sober as tours in the 1960s were stoned.”
* * *
The producer graduated from the ranks of hot agents to become a man who packages his own deals, often involving his own clients. In the last five years, he and some of his famous clients have bottomed out together on cocaine, have been through treatment, and are now ex -users.
“I used to put together deals where we would close the door and put out the cocaine and talk about the terms of the contract, and cocaine would be part of the movie from beginning to end. Now I recently put together a movie where the director and both stars are recovering substance abusers. They held little AA meetings on their lunch hours.”
“Is there any way to look at a movie and tell that cocaine was involved in its filming?”
“Not really, except that if enough coke was around, the movie probably isn’t very good. It will have vast grandiose movements leading to nothing.
“One thing, though, that I used to notice. If the people making a movie are deep enough into cocaine, they have a very hard time keeping it off the screen. There will be a scene where a character snorts cocaine, and you won’t be able to explain why it’s in there.” He named a particular movie in which a jazz musician snorts cocaine in a movie set in the 1920s, years before coke snorting was introduced to the jazz milieu. “Heroin would have been historically accurate,” he said, “but they weren’t interested in heroin.”
* * *
The writer has a punk chic look, with a wild hairdo. She says she has been in Alcoholics Anonymous for five years. She recently moved from one coast to another, and while unpacking some old scripts, she started to read them.
“It was amazing,” she says. “I wrote them behind [on] cocaine. The first draft of a scene would be fine. Then I would go ahead and rewrite the same scene 20 times, compulsively, over and over, and it would get worse and worse. On some of the ‘rewrites’ I would simply be re-typing the same stuff, with no changes. I had all this cocaine energy but absolutely no critical judgment. The problem with coke is, how can you tell if something is good or bad, when everything makes you feel ecstatic?”
* * *
In the current issue of American Film magazine, director Martin Scorsese is quoted as saying that Hollywood is becoming divided into two camps: the users, and the people who don’t use. Movie deals are put together on that basis. Scorsese is careful to make clear that he is now in the non-user camp.
* * *
Newspaper headlines keep count of the graduates of the Betty Ford Center for Alcohol and Drug Abuse in Palm Springs. The list any includes Elizabeth Taylor, Liza Minnelli, Mary Tyler Moore, Robert Mitchum, Eileen Brennan, Tony Curtis, and one who didn’t make it, Peter Lawford. But there is a paradox in the high-profile publicity re ceived by these stars.
“When they are admitted to Betty Ford,” says hospital spokesman Cliff Brown, “they are told that this is a program based on the 12 steps of AA, and they are supposed to remain anonymous -- not because they should be ashamed to be alcoholics or drug abusers, but because taking credit for your own recovery is contrary to the philosophy of the program.
“But before they even get here, many of them have held press conferences to announce that they’re coming in. So the damage has al ready been done. We have a policy that we will not confirm or deny that anyone is here.”
* * *
“I have several clients who have had alcohol and drug problems,” says John Springer, the veteran New York publicist. “I have always advised them to get treatment privately and confidentially. With Elizabeth Taylor, who is a former client of mine, of course it’s probably true that anywhere she went she would have gotten publicity. Liz is Liz. But Mitchum and Curtis could have gone into a place that didn’t have such high visibility. On the other hand, Elizabeth probably did a lot of good for a lot of ordinary people by admitting she had a problem and was doing some thing about it. People see her on TV, looking better than she’s looked in 15 years, and they get the message.”
* * *
“We were shocked that the press found out about our client Eileen Brennan going into Betty Ford Center,” says Jerry Pam, a Hollywood publicist. “But when people are famous, it’s hard for them to disappear for a month or two with out the press becoming curious. If Tony Curtis were Bernie Schwartz and lived on Fairfax Avenue, he could go anywhere and sober up. But the National Enquirer runs the Addict of the Week Club. If I had a client who came to me today and said he had a drinking problem, I’d send him to a place where nobody would find out he was there. There’s a place in Minnesota that’s very private. The National Enquirer isn’t camped out on the doorstep.”
* * *
“Hey, pal, I feel great,” Tony Curtis told a TV interviewer at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. While the camera was rolling, he said he and a couple of friends would be holding an AA meeting later that day. “I don’t mind telling anybody that I’m off drugs and booze.”
* * *
“There’s an AA meeting in a hospital near Beverly Hills,” the young actress said, “where people in the business say it’s good to be seen. Like, if it’s known that you’re a cokehead and you’re irresponsible and undependable, after a while you can’t get work. So if you get clean and sober, you start turning up at the right meetings, and the word gets around town that you’re safe to work with again. It’s also typical that a recovering person will switch agencies. They’ve probably been with an agency with a ‘liberal’ attitude about the drug habits of its clients. They might switch to an agency that is known for putting together ‘clean’ deals. For example, William Morris is known around town as a sober agency.”
* * *
“When AA held its convention in Montreal,” the studio executive said, “the papers were full of it. They claim they have more than a million members. When have you recently seen an AA meeting in a movie? We make all these movies about drinking and drugging -- especially the teenage food-fight movies -- but never anything about how you might get well. The only AA meeting in a movie in the last 10 years was in ‘Polyester,’ where Divine started siphoning gasoline out of an automobile gas task, and went to a meeting because she thought she might have a problem. But this fall, Hal Ashby goes into production on ‘Eight Million Ways to Die,’ a thriller in which two of the major characters are recovering alcoholics. And they’ve optioned all those Elmore Leonard thrillers. Half of them have AA scenes.”
* * *
“There have been a hundred movies glorifying drugging and drinking, for every one that suggested that addiction might not be so hot,” the studio head said. “But now I think the tide is turning. In the 1960s and 1970s there were a lot of drugs in this town. There still are.
“But there is a very large, invisible contingent of former users who are now sober, and who have different ideas about drinking and drugs. The day is coming when their ideas will be reflected in the movies that are made. It won’t happen all at once. It will happen over a period of time. There’s a perfect parallel with cigarette smoking. In the 1930s and 1940s, you couldn’t be a movie star unless you knew how to look good with a cigarette in your mouth. Ask your self what was the last movie you saw where cigarettes were presented as glamorous.”
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