It's about time that Hollywood began to sober up and make some effort to come to terms with its own odd addiction to addiction movies.
Like other forms of obsession and dependency, this particular pattern of behavior qualifies as both irrational and self-destructive. The less-than-stellar box office returns for Sandra Bullock's heavily hyped new rehab comedy 28 Days represents just the latest evidence that the general public in no way shares the entertainment industry's feverish fascination with drugs, drunkenness and detox.
Filmmakers use the same basic setup for each of these moody melodramas - in which some major star gets to play a glamorous but tormented loser, trapped in a nightmare of addiction or alcoholism, struggling to achieve a measure of sanity and control. In 1988, Michael Keaton went to a clinic to get Morgan Freeman's help in his efforts to become Clean and Sober. In 1994, Meg Ryan learned that a husband such as Andy Garcia will support even an appallingly alcoholic wife When a Man Loves a Woman; in 1998 Ben Stiller relied on the assistance of Elizabeth Hurley and Janeane Garofalo to avoid Permanent Midnight.
Despite big name casts and positive reviews, none of these ambitious projects connected with ordinary film fans or achieved noteable commercial success. Nevertheless, major production companies plan additional attempts to rehash the rehab process. later this year, Sylvester Stallone stars in D-Tox, playing an alcoholic cop at a drying-out clinic in Wyoming where a serial killer has been knocking off patients. Already under development is Rachel's Holiday, based on a novel by Irish author Marian Keyes, about a lush and cocaine addict locked up in a rehabilitation center near Dublin.
No sane (or sober) individual could reasonably expect such painful projects to clean up at the box office. How many teenagers can you imagine saying to one another in a high school lunchroom: "Hey, come on Tiffany! Let's go out together this Friday to watch Sandra Bullock struggle to kick a booze and pills habit! We'll have a blast!" Even when addiction movies try to employ irreverent humor (as 28 Days does with some success) the underlying tone remains solemn, offering ordinary moviegoers an ordeal, rather than entertainment.
It's precisely the serious, self-important edge that makes such meaty material all but irresistable to prominent performers, particularly those - such as Sandra Bullock, Meg Ryan or Ben Stiller - who have become famous through frothy, light-hearted diversions. Rehab roles give likeable lightweights the chance to show unexpected depth and range and to gain what every actor secretly craves most: Serious regard from peers and public. After all, Nicholas Cage won the Oscar for playing a single-mindedly suicidal drunk in Leaving Las Vegas (1995) - another project with spectacularly positive reviews but only limited audience appeal.
The willingness of top producers to keep revisiting the same failed formula despite a dismal commercial track record demonstrates that Hollywood occasionally will make decisions with no regard to public preferences or popular demand. This is particularly true when scripts manage to connect with the personal experiences of leaders in the movie colony. No, not everyone in show business is an addict or an alcoholic, but everyone knows somebody who is. Recent headlines about Robert Downey, Jr. and Charlie Sheen (or Whitney Houston?) represent especially pathetic examples. One of the funniest lines in the satirical film The Player (1992) suggests that ambitious entertainment executives now attend Alcoholocs Anonymous meetings not for the uplioft, but for crucial contacts.
Twleve Step programs and radical rehabilitation regimens may prove hot topics of conversation at Beverly Hills dinner parties, but they command far less attention at blue-collar barbecues in flyover country. Even though waitresses and truck drivers may battle addiction with the same desperate determination as screenwriters, there's no evidence that they wish to relive those struggles by paying good money to watch big-screen versions of their experiences. Whether you're in denial or in detox, most turbulent, addictive personalities might well prefer playfulness to preachiness - entertaining escapes to meaningful messages.
Furthermore, authentic veterans of most rehab and renewal programs will note one glaring omission in Hollywood's approach to the process. That missing fact is God - since AA's Twelve Steps and other conspicuosly successful programs for the treatment of addiction make a point of emphasizing the importance of acknowledging our own helplessness and calling upon a Higher Power.
In addiction and redemption movies, however, present-day producers display their usual blind spot when it comes to religion; it is always true love or some caring counselor, rather than a deepening faith or spiritual transformation or supernatural assistance that rescues the protagonist from personal demons.
Perhaps a similar leap of faith might help Hollywood readjust its pattern of producing self-indulgent addiction epics, but it will take more than 28 Days to break the habit. Until then, we can expect additional releases that put us through the rehab ringer, with more of the same pathetically predictable box office results.
Michael Medved hosts a nationally syndicated daily radio talk show. He is a member of USA Today's board of contributors.
EIC Response to Michael Medved
Movies and television have been vilified over the years for glamorizing alcohol and drug addiction. And, indeed, there was a time when alcohol, drug pushers and drug use were portrayed as "cool" and "fun."
In 1983, a group of entertainment industry leaders formed the Entertainment Industries Council, Inc. (EIC), with the goal of encouraging creators of enterainment products to include accurate depictions of drug and alcohol use and addiction. The results have been impressive.
Today, many of the major studios and national cable and broadcast networks encourage their creative talent to use science-based information when depicting any form of drug, alcohol or tobacco use and addiction. Information is available through a unique partnership between the EIC, The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Columnist Michael Medved faults a number of recent and upcoming movies for accurately dealing with forms of addiction, pointing out that most of these never achieve blockbuster status ("Hollywood battles addiction to addiction movies," The Forum, April 25).
Last October, on the pages of USA Today, he was lecturing Hollywood for its "glorification" of drugs ("Hollywood can't become the 'hall monitor' for our kids," The Forum, October 8, 1999).
Well, he can't have it both ways.
While Medved was attempting to rally the masses to join his attack on the creative community, delegations from 18 of the industry's creative guilds and trade associations were meeting to develop a three-year plan of action for Hollywood's efforts to address substance use and addiction - not to mention gun violence, safety and injury prevention. The scale of the effort is unprecedented.
Studies have shown that accurate depictions of addiction in the media are an effective means of communicating the truth of addiction to the general public. Movies such as Clean and Sober, When a Man Loves a Woman and Permanent Midnight may not have set box-office records, but they were powerful, compelling and moving tales seen by millions of people who were shown the realities of addiction and its very human toll.
All three films were singled out for honors at EIC's annual PRISM Awards, which salutes entertainment-industry productions and individuals who accurately portray drug, alcohol and tobacco use and addiction through creative choices.
A panel of drug researchers, treatment experts and prevention specialists reviewed these productions and gave them a thumbs-up for accurate depiction.
We expect 28 Days, the Sandra Bullock vehicle Medved maligned for this thesis, to be a contender in next year's PRISM Awards.
While Medved searches for new reasons to criticize the entertainment industry and call for censorship, the Entertainment industries Council, Inc. and its partners will continue to celebrate the art of making a difference.
Brian Dyak is President and CEO of the Entertainment Industries Council, Inc.