Sunday, January 27, 2008

~ the high echelons

It seems that Heath Ledger had his problems with drugs. Well, so what?

As the information leaked out about his sad demise, one could sense the efforts, on one side, to play down the sordid elements. Scattered pills found their way back into the bottle. A rolled up note was found to have no residue. From the other side – that of the ravenous and voyeuristic – we learned that he had just left rehab, was battling addictions to heroin, xanax and stilnox, that he was distressed and sleep-deprived.

Tasty. But why do drugs so often become the centrepiece?

Well, some of us like to watch the mighty descend into the abyss. It reassures us to learn that they are as weak and as freaked out as us. It makes us feeler closer to them. And, of course, we love scandal for its own sake. That’s simply in our nature.

We’re ghoulishly curious when it comes to the stars – those public assets in which we all have a stake. Every detail of Ledger’s death scene has been described in the media, interpreted, analysed and spin doctored by publicists. But with the mention of drugs our interest ramped to a whole other level. This betrays us, just as drugs betray the personal struggles of the famous.

During the Heath Ledger coverage, I read the comment that fame is a sort of mental illness. Perhaps the sensitive, troubled Ledger turned to drugs as a way of self medicating this illness. Perhaps that’s the reason so many celebrated people do take drugs.

It’s like having Alzheimer’s Disease. You don’t know anyone, but they all know you,” said Tony Curtis. But that’s just part of the story. There’s pressure, stress, loss of freedom, alienation, loneliness, and a tendency for people to become friends with your fame, not with you.

In David Gritten’s book ‘Fame’ he claims that ‘celebrity behaviour is rooted in a type of personality disorder’. Histrionic Personality Disorder to be exact, defined as ‘a pervasive pattern of excessive emotionality and attention seeking’. Some of the symptoms are the ‘display of rapidly shifting and shallow expressions of emotions’, behaviour ‘being directed towards obtaining immediate satisfaction, with no tolerance for the frustration of delayed gratification,’ and ‘a style of speech that is excessively impressionistic and lacking in detail [e.g. when asked to describe mother, can be no more specific than “she was a beautiful person”’.

You have your Britney Spears, and her sordid public fall from innocence. She’s a red raw case of the fame disease. You have all those actors – Owen Wilson, Steve Coogan, Brad Renfro, River Phoenix, Robert Downey Junior etc., who have or have had relationships with heroin. Musicians in even greater numbers, writers too, models and sportsmen. And I’m not including cocaine.

It’s so rife, this affliction of our idols and role models, that ‘rehab’ has somehow evolved into a pretty cool concept. In the hip crowd, among the high echelons, and on the press release, well it’s getting kind of groovy, isn’t it?

It would be good to shrug off the prejudice and the stigma associated with drug use, but that’s not really what happening here.

On one side you have the prohibitionists and on the other you have people who admire drug use in their heroes because it’s a la mode. Both are in error. And of all the reasons for taking drugs, imitating the beloved famous is one of the most insidious. I have a particular dislike for it because that’s pretty much what started me off

Hearing that an artist has a drug history, automatically perks my interest. Even now. I can’t help it. And I’m not the only one.

[No matter how great a song it was, I really wish that Lou Reed had never written ‘Heroin’.]

I won’t get into details now, but the creative soul is far more likely to experiment with mind altering drugs. Sometimes, it’s just part and parcel of the thing: the quest for new vistas, for an undiscovered viewpoint, for mystery – and sometimes the result of a painful sensitivity to a crass and blaring world.

It’s true. Often the most interesting ones are the ones who engage with drugs. And when they get famous, we imitate their behaviour.

And when they are infected with fame – well, that can push them deeper. The artistic temperament can be overfed, the ego may rear like the Whore of Babylon. Money and freedom and reputation can increase creative freedom, but expectations, fear of failure and commercial pressures can close it down. Doubts can arise over ones integrity. I’m not sure if Hollywood-grade fame is ever good for an artist, unless he’s one of the few that it actually suits.

Give me Emily Dickinson any day.

The reputation of Heath Ledger will not suffer by his exposure as a drug addict. People will understand how sensitive an artistic soul he was, how troubled, how he missed his daughter, and was deeply disturbed after immersing himself in the role of The Joker. [a claim only a Hollywood actor could make, no?] Probably the only truly damaging revelation was that he was friends with Mary-Kate Olsen.

Lynne suggested that his lack of classical training may have been an influence. A lot of actors, these days, become so deeply immersed in a role that they cannot dissociate themselves. They engage in intense research, force massive weight changes, and wind up misplacing their sense of self. They don’t isolate a personal centre to keep themselves sane.

Anyway, what about the man on the street? Being exposed as drug addict is a entirely different thing for him, isn’t it? We don’t quite get the same level of compassionate understanding.

Our gods of Mt Olympus are not subject to the same laws as we. If they are revealed as drug addicts, we create a moving backstory with which to enrich their posthumous biographies [and the lurid pages of the gossip mags].

[And, by the way, how do they get these drugs? Do they see a doctor? Or is it all done by a PA? Do you think they get their hands dirty like the rest of us?]

There are also the prominent users who are never exposed in the tabloids; who need to keep it quiet and are rich enough to do so. But sometimes rumours filter down. James Packer and Laughlin Murdoch; tight friends who spent a good swathe of time on heroin. Kate Fischer got in on it too, it is said, and only when Packer divorced her and married ‘ex-escort’ Jodhi Meares did he clean up. [Scientology was a factor there too, it is said.] Then you have Elle McPherson, cleanest of the clean, who wouldn’t do a photo shoot unless the coke was laid on. It is said. And Sonia McMahon? Well it’s not relevant at all, but I’ve been told that before she became our first lady, she was an escort too. [I couldn’t resist putting that in.]

All ‘rumours’ of course, but among certain of the high echelons hard drugs will always be de rigeur. The modern aristocracy is isolated from petty considerations that the ordinary populace has to face – like. say, waiting for hours in dark carparks, or doing without for lack of money. Occasionally, the vices of a luminary will be bared to a voracious public, but again you’ll have the backstory and once more our considerate understanding.

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Bwca said...

famous people have drugs gifted to them as tokens of worship, whereas that is much less likely to happen to an ordinary person.

To become a great guitar player, one does have to obsessively practice, so an obsessive temperament is also more likely in a creative person and the obsessiveness that leads to career success also leads to addiction

and I prefer my obsessives to turn to smack rather than to cults
(all Cruise biogs mention he was studying for priesthood when acting occurred to him - he's just an obsessive).

and you are so right:
"the only truly damaging revelation was that he was friends with Mary-Kate Olsen"
another obsessive

I'm an obsessive.
The medication does not work.
and Aeroguard doesn't work either.
I'm going to form a Fbook group.
Aeroguard doesn't work!

mel said...

Understanding the troubled artiste these days is more commonly attributed to Acquired Situational Narcissism (ASN) rather than Histrionic Personality Disorder.