Tuesday, March 22, 2011

When Stars Go "Bad"

One would very nearly have to be on a deserted island to avoid hearing Charlie Sheen's name mentioned several times a day on the news on TV, on talk shows, and in newspapers and magazines. Indeed, in February Sheen made derogatory comments about the producer of Two and A Half Men, Chuck Lorre, which some thought were tinged with anti-Semitism. The result of this was CBS and  Warner Brothers and CBS fired him from the hit sitcom. That having been said, given the history of actors and scandals, I rather suspect that had this taken place fifty years ago, Sheen could have already been fired.

Indeed, it was in 1921 that comedy star Fatty Arbuckle was accused of the rape and murder of starlet Virginia Rappe. While Fatty Arbuckle was eventually acquitted at the following trial, his career would never recover. Although friends such as Buster Keaton would send some directorial work his way, he was more or less blacklisted in the Hollywood community. He died in 1933 at the age of 46 a broken man. The scandal surrounding Fatty Arbuckele would also lead to the creation of the infamous "morality clause," that part of a star's contract forbidding them from doing anything immoral, even if wasn't necessarily illegal.

Fatty Arbuckle would not be the only actor whose career would suffer from scandal. In 1941 Lionel Atwill was accused of holding sex orgies at his home. In 1942 he was convicted of perjury in the trail regarding the alleged orgies. Lionel Atwill continued to act, but his career would never be the same. Perhaps no star suffered as great a fall from grace as Ingrid Bergman. One of the biggest stars in Hollywood, Ingrid Bergman had begun an affair with director Roberto Rosellini while filming Stromboli in 1950. In 1951 she was pregnant with his child. While this might seem minor today, in the Fifties it became a cause célèbre in the United States.She was even denounced on the floor of the U. S. Senate. Ed Sullivan even cancelled her appearance on his show. Effectively blacklisted by Hollywood, Miss Bergman would spend her next several years in Italy, where she continued to make movies. She would not return to Hollywood until 1956 when she appeared in Anastasia

Indeed, in past years even the movies one made could end his or her career. Michael Powell had been one of the top British directors from the Forties into the Fifties. He had directed such classic films as Thief of Baghdad (1940) and The Red Shoes (1948). It was in 1960 that his film Peeping Tom was released. Now regarded as a classic, the movie was regarded by many British critics as a base exploitation film at best and outright pornography at worst. Backlash against the film was so great that it effectively ended Mr. Powell's career in the United Kingdom.

Of course, there were stars who survived scandal. Mary Astor had just started shooting Dodsworth (1936) when her husband Dr. Franklin Thorpe threatened to reveal the contents of her diary, which allegedly told of her many affairs, as evidence in the custody battle between the two. Because of the morality clause in her contract, producer Samuel Goldwyn was urged to fire her. He stood by Miss Astor, however, as did the public. As to the diary, it was never made public. In 1942 Errol Flynn was accused of statutory rape by two under age girls. Like Fatty Arbuckle before him, Flynn was cleared of any charges. Unlike Fatty Arbuckle, Errol Flynn's career did not suffer because of the scandal. It was in 1948 that Robert Mitchum and Lila Leeds were arrested for possession of marijuana, something much more scandalous then than it is now. Mr. Mitchum served a week in the county jail, but the arrest did little to hurt his career. The studio simply warned Robert Mitchum to straighten up. It would in 1951 that the conviction would be overturned by the Los Angeles District Attorney's office.

I suppose the whole point of this is that there has been little consistency in the film industry with regards to scandal. Fatty Arbuckle was acquitted and there seems to have been no real evidence to connect him with the rape and murder of Virginia Rappe, but his career went down in flames. Errol Flynn was acquitted and there was no real evidence that he had committed statutory rape with the two girls, but his career continued to thrive. Mary Astor's extramarital affairs came to light with no negative impact on her career, while Ingrid Bergman's affair with Roberto Rosellini nearly ended hers. Here it must be pointed out that the popularity of these stars seems to have played no role in surviving scandals. Admittedly Errol Flynn was a huge star in 1942, but so was Fatty Arbuckle in 1920 (in fact, he made more money than Charlie Chaplin). And Ingrid Bergman was a much bigger star in 1950 than Mary Astor ever was, especially in 1936. It is difficult to say why some stars are so damaged by scandal and others are not, as there seems to be no real consistency in the matter.

As to Charlie Sheen, I rather suspect if not for the more lax morality of our times, he would have been fired long ago. My reasoning is simply that Sheen's misbehaviour has gone far beyond extramarital affairs or smoking pot. He has had problems with alcohol and drugs for some time. Even in the Golden Age of Hollywood this could have been overlooked, but it seem obvious that Sheen's problems went beyond alcohol and drugs. As far back as 1996 he was arrested for assaulting then girlfriend Brittany Ashland. In 2006 then wife Denise Richards accused him of physical and mental abuse. In 2009 he was arrested on suspicition of second degree assault in an altercation with then wife Brooke Mueller. In October 2010 he was taken into custody after causing $7000 in damage at the Plaza Hotel in New York City.

That brings us to this year, when Charlie Sheen criticised the producers of Two and a Half Men and began his sometimes incoherent tirades. As if his past behaviour was not frightening enough, his tirades can be even more frightening. Indeed, they remind me of the tapes of individuals with schizophrenia and other mental disorders we listened to in my psychology class. Whether simply because of his drug use or some underlying mental condition, it seems obvious to me that Sheen is not a well man. This especially seems quite likely after the various incidents of the past many years, incidents that have gone far beyond things that have gotten actors fired in the past.

Now I will admit that I am not a big fan of morality clauses in contracts. Quite simply, I think people's views of what is moral and what is immoral vary so what one might find objectionable another might find perfectly acceptable. That having been said, I think Charlie Sheen's behaviour the past many years has gone far beyond simply being immoral to being downright dangerous, both to himself and those around him. While I do not condone adultery, the extramarital affairs actors and actresses may have had in the past are in no way comparable to what Sheen has done. I rather suspect that even if he had lived and been a huge star in, say, 1939, and behaved in the same way, he would have been out of a job long ago. Sadly, it seems there is a rumour that Warner Brothers wants to talk to Sheen about returning to his sitcom. I think this could be a big mistake, at least until he seeks some serious, professional help.


MovieNut14 said...

I immediately thought of two other scandals, even though they had the opposite effect of the ones you listed: Robert Mitchum's marijuana bust and Lana Turner accused of murdering her gangster boyfriend.

Terence Towles Canote said...

Actually, I believe it was Lana's daughter who was accused of the killing, but it was ruled a justifiable homicide. Either way, it didn't seriously hurt Lana's career!

MovieNut14 said...

Neither did Bobby's stint in prison. That actually had him perceived as Hollywood's bad boy.