Friday, February 26, 2010

Train Wrecks

Everything moves faster these days -- including the celebrity career arc. It used to be that even the most self-destructive starlet took a decade or so to totally self-immolate. Marilyn Monroe may have teetered on the edge of oblivion for much of her film career, but it still took her over a dozen years to flame out. Judy Garland skirted disaster more frequently and for far longer, but still managed a triumphant comeback every few years until the final tumble through sycophantic hangers-on and multiple ill-advised marriages, expiring on a London toilet seat at 47. Even Anna Nicole Smith, perhaps the least equipped for fame and the least talented, managed to hang on until the ripe old age of 39.

Now it seems that by the time I've become conscious of a star's existence she's already losing her place in the firmament. The first time I heard Amy Winehouse sing "Rehab" on the car radio I thought it must be an old Motown hit I'd somehow missed, but knew it couldn't be because "rehab" would never have been part of the vernacular of the day. By the time I bought her CDs she was already spiralling out of control and speculators were doubting she'd make it to her 25th birthday. I barely know who Lily Allen is save for her public feuds with other entertainers and her bouts of drinking and drugging. And it seems just moments ago that I was watching Lindsay Lohan do double duty as twins in the remake of The Parent Trap and now she's the poster child for anorexia, addiction, poor decisions, and victims of stage parents.

Child stars going all the way back to the Great Depression have had notoriously bad luck making the transition to well-balanced adulthood, let alone continued career success. Even "Kitten," the youngest daughter on television's straight-laced pioneer comedy Father Knows Best eventually confessed to a lifetime of prostitution and drug dependency spawned by her inability to overcome her saccharine sit com persona. MacKenzie Phillips has made a two-decade cottage industry out of rehashing her addictions and mining the minutae of her life for ever more explosive ore, culminating with her recent revelation that she was the lover of her own famous father. Former Brady Bunch star Maureen McCormick came late to the game, revealing the sobering news in her bio that if she hadn't gone to the audition stoned, she may have gotten the role of Princess Lea in Star Wars.

Why do today's young talents, ingenues, and "It" girls blaze out so soon? It may be our 24-hour online culture, which holds a microscope to their every move -- there's simply no way to hide a misstep or indulgence, be it chemical, sexual, or even sartorial. Dozens of inane reality shows thrust people who literally have no talent or charm into our consciousness -- there has never been a time where so many people were famous simply for being famous, a realm once reserved almost exclusively for the Gabor sisters. And with star-making machines like American Idol that turn out pseudo-celebrities like sausage, there's more competition for attention and blog space.

It's nice to see when someone like Nicole Ritchie cleans up her act and manages to keep the locomotive on the tracks. But for every Nicole, there are dozens of Mischa Bartons and Courtney Loves barreling along, never aware until too late that the bridge ahead has washed out.

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