Years of bad behavior have finally caught up with Mel Gibson, who was just starting to recover from the PR nightmare of his notorious 2006 drunken-driving arrest when damning taped phone conversations emerged earlier this year, portraying him as a crazed bully who abused his girlfriend. Consider Gibson’s miserable scorecard for 2010: His first star vehicle in eight years, Edge of Darkness, flopped; a Jodie Foster-directed movie starring Gibson, The Beaver, is sitting on a shelf because distributors aren’t interested; and he just got fired from The Hangover 2 after agreeing to play a cameo, reportedly because some of the film’s stars disapproved of his involvement. And the year isn’t even over yet. Things could get better for Gibson, but chances are they’ll get worse.
Meanwhile, another star whose publicists are working overtime on damage control, Lindsay Lohan, just dodged a bullet when a judge inexplicably kept her out of jail even though she violated the probation related to her ongoing drug-charges drama. But even though she avoided real-life incarceration, Lohan is serving a long term in movie-star jail, because her only onscreen appearance this year was a glorified cameo in the exploitation flick Machete. She demonstrated her acting range in that movie by playing a coked-out party girl who has difficulty remaining clothed.
From a distance, it might look as if the film industry passed judgment on Gibson and Lohan, shunning them from major movie projects as a moralistic statement against Gibson’s drinking and Lohan’s drugging. Nothing could be further from the truth. These two were kicked to the curb for being bad investments, not for being bad people. It’s no secret that Hollywood regularly tolerates extreme behavior, so the unpardonable sin these two actors committed was losing their financial viability.
After all, Robert Downey Jr.’s career survived long enough for him to stage one of the great Hollywood comebacks, even though his behavior during the ’90s was just as self-destructive as Lohan’s is today. The difference is that even at Downey’s lowest points, he was still considered a good investment because people believed in his talent. He was perceived as an actor one big movie away from superstardom, and luckily for all concerned that was proven true with Iron Man. Downey got one chance after another because Hollywood saw the potential to make a fortune off his talent.
The same goes for any number of other actors whose ability to draw crowds trumped their offscreen difficulties: John Belushi, Richard Burton, Montgomery Clift, Chris Farley, Marilyn Monroe, and Robert Shaw are just some of the known addicts who worked in movies almost until the times of their drug- or alcohol-related deaths. While each individual had friends who tried to keep these stars healthy, producers enabled the stars’ addiction with employment when what the stars really needed was to enter recovery. Speaking in the most general terms, the film industry didn’t care what these people drank or injected or snorted, just like the film industry doesn’t care what Gibson imbibes or Lohan ingests. But while Belushi, Farley, Monroe and the others kept their box-office appeal even as they were destroying themselves, Gibson and Lohan lost the only thing the film industry actually cares about: marketability.
In Gibson’s case, the poor box-office performance of Edge of Darkness is a bad sign for future projects. Adapted from a British TV series, Edge of Darkness was actually an exciting movie, and Gibson delivered the goods even if he’s gone to the unhinged-cop-out-for-vengeance well a few too many times. So even though Gibson gave a credible performance in a worthwhile movie, then went out and beat the drums by making one press appearance after another to promote the film, the American public only bought $43 million worth of tickets. That’s a huge comedown from Gibson’s previous star vehicle, 2002’s Signs, which made $227 million in the U.S.
We already know that Gibson’s box-office decline has hurt The Beaver, the Foster-directed movie about a man who only communicates through the beaver puppet he wears on his hand, and it remains to be seen if Gibson will get any luckier with How I Spent My Summer Vacation, an upcoming prison drama that Gibson stars in, co-wrote, and produced. But no matter what happens with these two pictures, it’s plain that Gibson isn’t playing in the same league he played in a decade ago. The Beaver and How I Spent My Summer Vacation are small-scale indies, suggesting that the offers just aren’t coming in anymore for big-budget projects like Lethal Weapon 5, which reportedly came close to production several times in the last few years.
And now Gibson’s career is subject to even more ephemeral forces than his actual box-office performance. If the rumors are true that Zach Galifianakis and/or other Hangover 2 stars nixed Gibson’s cameo, then Gibson has actually reached a point where his clout is overpowered by that of up-and-comers. Especially given Gibson’s long and lucrative history with Warner Bros., the studio that released nearly all of his biggest hits, why would Warner Bros. let Galifianakis and co. tell them what to do? The answer to that one’s easy: The studio needs its Hangover 2 stars to run around the world telling everyone to see the movie, which means the studio needs to keep them happy. And no matter how much money he made for Warner Bros. in the past, the studio doesn’t have a pressing need to keep Gibson happy. The kids win.
With Lohan, a different marketplace force is in place: In all likelihood, she’s completely uninsurable at this point. Changing actors midway through a film production is prohibitively expensive, so producers take out completion bonds and other forms of insurance covering them for unexpected eventualities like actors getting hurt while performing stunts. Insurers charge sky-high premiums whenever producers cast actors with known substance-abuse problems and/or legal troubles, because it’s almost certain the production will lose time and money waiting for that actor to get himself or herself together. Marilyn Monroe was legendary for showing up halfway through the shooting day, working a couple of hours, and then claiming she was too ill to continue. So you can imagine how much any producer has to pay to employ Lohan, on top of her salary.
The onetime Mean Girls star is enough of a name that if she wanted to, she could easily cash in by doing trashy movies for small paychecks, working for unscrupulous companies willing to skip the insurance hassle and take their chances that she’s well enough to shoot all of her scenes. But for the moment, Lohan seems determined to maintain her shaky status in the world of “real” movies. For instance, she’s been attached for quite some time to a planned biopic of ’70s porn star Linda Lovelace, which could be a powerful dramatic film if made well. However as long as there’s a chance a judge will lose patience and toss her in the clink, it’s unlikely any reputable insurer or producer will get behind a movie with Lohan in every scene.
So while the recent headlines about Gibson and Lohan may have created the impression that Hollywood has shunned them out of conscience, don’t believe that for a minute. The minute either of these actors demonstrates a favorable shift in their cost/return ratio, they’ll be back in front of the cameras on major projects. Like any other manufacturing industry, Hollywood discards tools that don’t work anymore, and doesn’t pick them up again unless a new use for those tools is discovered.