‘Lindsay Lohan’s new film,’ I told almost everyone I spoke to for about two months earlier this year, ‘is about werewolf detectives.’ Nobody seemed too surprised, given the fact that ‘Lindsay Lohan’s new film is about werewolf detectives’ functions not unlike a millennial ‘for sale/baby shoes’ about the perils of child stardom, and nobody seemed especially enthusiastic about seeing it unless it was to rubberneck. A car crash – now a common metaphor for an extremely famous woman with a death wish in both life and work –compels precisely because it provokes a feeling of alarming nearness to its heat. People do not hesitate to warm their hands on Lindsay Lohan’s fire, nor do they hesitate to fan its flames by pointing to her worst mistakes. For the past nine or ten years, or for about as long as I’ve been writing, Lindsay Lohan has for me been a perpetual touchstone, a fact that I once explained by citing her precocious genius, and which I am now more likely to elucidate by saying she is representative of a millennial obsession with early-life promise and adult disaster. Gifted children, at least judging from media Twitter, were a dime a dozen for my generation; common, too, are grown-up, deadbeat failures, numbed by drugs and bummed-out by depression. The enduring and memetic popularity of famous women on trajectories that have, at one time or another, clattered downhill at tremendous speed – particularly those who happen to be former child stars, à la Britney Spears – suggests a certain vicarious thrill at the explosive way they waste themselves.
What in childhood can seem preternatural or God-given in its grace seems, in an adult with a pill addiction and more DUIs than Oscar nominations, like a sick, tremendous waste. In the case of ‘a great talent with a really sexy voice’ per Robert Altman, not to mention ‘a terrific actress’ in the eyes of Meryl Streep, self-destructiveness in adulthood looks a lot like taking a lit match to the gas tank of a Porsche. Lohan, with her luminous good looks, her vaguely Lolita-ish adolescent vibe, and her astounding nine-year-old ability to play twins with convincingly divergent accents, had everything to play for. She possessed a hoarse, screwball heroine’s skill at seeming simultaneously as if she’d seen too much, and as if she would not rest until she’d seen everything on earth. She played too fast, and too hard, and did not exercise the muscles of her brilliance by accepting the right roles, following up her work with Altman in A Prairie Home Companion (2006) with the rom-com Just My Luck (2006), and the Lynch-lite thriller I Know Who Killed Me (2007), and eventually, a minor role in Scary Movie 5 (2013).
The label ‘uninsurable’ became synonymous with Lohan, and though she might once have revived her career by taking her bad girl’s appeal and her seen-it-all, ex-Mouseketeer mien to the arthouse to appear in something like Spring Breakers (2012), she did not seem willing to give up on the opportunity of having one more shot at a new Mean Girls (2004), a new Freaky Friday (2003). Her one attempt at real indie credibility, working with a Bret Easton Ellis screenplay for Paul Schrader in The Canyons (2013), flopped despite a credible, borderline-incredible turn from Lohan as a jaded, vicious former actress with a drinking problem and an unfortunate predilection for sexual violence. ‘It’s unfortunate, if inevitable, that The Canyons is smothered under the attention that its star, Lindsay Lohan, has been getting for matters other than her acting,’ Richard Brody wrote in The New Yorker that same year, ‘[because] it’s hard to imagine another actress of Lohan’s generation who would bring such emotional force to the role.’ In the six years between now and then, her CV has contained nothing but bit-parts in TV comedies, and roles in shorts that almost nobody has heard of. Her extracurricular CV has been more or less devoted to rumoured romances with crown princes, billionaires and bodybuilders, as well as to reality television, and to the development of a new and untraceable accent she referred to as ‘Lilohan.’ She ended up in films about werewolf detectives in much the same way F. Scott Fitzgerald went broke: gradually, then all at once.
‘Elia Kazan said talent never dies,’ Nicolas Cage said, in a recent interview with The New York Times. ‘It can be discouraged, but it never dies.’ Certainly, to say that talent disappears is antithetical to the idea of it as something like the ancient Greek image of genius: a gift that descends, ghostlike, on an artist, pre-ordained and rare. It might be fairer to say that, ill-treated or otherwise left to waste, it dissipates. (There may be no truer description than one dreamed up by the director Bart Freundlich, who describes his wife Julianne Moore’s considerable talent as ‘a pilot light — this little flame that’s inside her.’ ‘If she doesn’t let it get blown out, ‘he added, ‘then she can ignite it at any time. That’s her number one job [as a performer].’) Cage himself has made a number of B-movies, and a great many more C-movies; although it is true he has the edge on Lohan by dint of being an Oscar-winner, it does not hurt that he is also Francis Ford Coppola’s nephew, and that he is not a former-it-girl in her thirties, but a man. What Cage calls ‘Nouveau Shamanism’ – an invented style of acting that involves enormous volume and expressive gestures, paired with an unusual approach to stress and scansion – allows him the luxury of simply showing up on set to be himself. What actress could be filmed screaming along to Purple Rain at karaoke days after the dissolution of her marriage, sounding like a woman on the verge of breaking down, and be referred to as iconic, an eccentric, rather than a lunatic? Nicolas Cage plays just as hard as Lohan, and his C.V. is no less ridiculous. Still, last year he got the lead in Panos Cosmatos’s lush, critically-lauded midnight movie Mandy (2018), while Lindsay appeared in a low-budget TV show called Sick Note that sank almost without trace.
‘[A muscle] can be broken down by slowly forcing it to accomplish more than it’s able,’ Kathy Acker wrote in Pussy, King of the Pirates – sounding, although not technically talking about talent, as though she were offering sage advice to actors everywhere. ‘Then, if and only if the muscle is properly fed with nutrients and sleep, it’ll grow back more beautiful than before.’ In the Lohan werewolf film, Among The Shadows, it turns out that she is not a werewolf, but a vampire, and that for some reason she is married to a much, much older politician. Most improbably of all, her character is named Patricia. Her beautiful muscles do not seem well-rested nor particularly toned, making her appear out of shape rather than in her element. Green-screened into an odd approximation of Fox News, angled at forty-five degrees as though she’s too embarrassed to address the speech to camera, seeing Lindsay Lohan as a powerful man’s wife and not his mistress is surreal: it’s only when we learn Patricia is in fact the villain – that she killed a lover during sex by draining him of blood, and that when visiting his grave she dresses like a sidepiece at a funeral in a Truffaut movie – that the character begins to coalesce. When Lindsay tries to do sincere or sweet, it reads as phoney. When she plays a hard-nosed woman, a Bette Davis in a battered Rita Hayworth body, some uncanny, sphinx-like magic still remains. ‘Her weakness is her inability to fake it,’ Paul Schrader once said, after working with her on The Canyons. ‘She feels she must be experiencing an emotion in order to play it. This leads to all sorts of emotional turmoil, not to mention on-set delays and melodrama. It also leads, when the gods smile, to movie magic. Monroe had the same affliction. They live large, both in life and on screen.’ Marilyn, whom Lindsay idolises, did not give as many great performances as she was capable of giving, her professionalism and her sanity not being equal to her genius. She made directors wait, she later said, because their palpable relief when she arrived made her feel loved – adulation, just as much as barbiturates, helped her get out of bed to work.
Women, and typically only women, who behave like this are labelled ‘divas’, a word whose root is in the Italian for ‘Goddess’, and whose modern usage makes it interchangeable with ‘total bitch’. In 2010, an op-ed in The Washington Post called California ‘the Lindsay Lohan of states: a prima donna who once showed some talent but is now too wasted to do anything with it.’ ‘The other forty-eight states – your cousin New York excluded – are sick of your bratty arrogance,’ the column’s author Allysia Finley snarls, referring to what was then a recent political snafu in Sacramento. ‘After enjoying ephemeral highs… you suffer crashes that culminate in brief, unsuccessful stints in rehab. This cycle repeats itself every five to ten years, as the rest of the country looks on with a mixture of horror and amusement. We’d feel sorry for you if you didn’t constantly flip us the bird.’ What makes a woman like the state of California is, in other words, her tendency to cycle between empty highs and wasteful lows, and to take every opportunity afforded her for granted. The California of literature might well be said to be the former Prozac brat and current middle-aged provocateur, Elizabeth Wurtzel, once described as ‘Sylvia Plath with the ego of Madonna’. A sensation in her twenties for her first book, Prozac Nation, her electric early promise did not manage to outweigh her drug addiction, her self-centred obnoxiousness, or her unwillingness to meet a deadline when it came to delivering book two. Bitch, a book of essays with the subtitle In Praise of Difficult Women, would no doubt have contained a chapter about Lindsay Lohan had it been released in 2008 rather than 1998. Like Lindsay, Wurtzel is a diva, and like Lindsay she has self-aggrandised and prevaricated her way into gaining what is called for women — and typically only women — something of a reputation.
With no Lohan to compare its author to, a 1998 review of Bitch in Slate referenced a different actress: ‘Wurtzel is the Marisa Tomei of literature: a cute, bright girl who… plays up the cuteness… while creating mediocre works that those less attractive, less connected or simply less lucky probably couldn’t dream of seeing so richly rewarded.’ Setting aside the fact that the review, despite being written by a woman, is so sexist that it ends with the line ‘she has very pretty tits’, it is not strictly incorrect about the author’s own insistence on her beauty being used as advertising. It is wrong, I think, about Bitch being mediocre. Wurtzel’s prose is not the problem. What is problematic is the fact that having already begun to giddily mythologise herself in Prozac Nation, Bitch makes it self-evident that she has drunk her own Revlon-red Kool Aid. Like so many pretty, white and narcissistic girls, she finds it impossible to contextualise her suffering, so that – when writing about the period in which she wrote Bitch for her third book, More, Now, Again – she comes across as an entitled little nightmare. ‘If you are a white middle-class girl,’ she writes about the experience of being arrested for – like Lohan – stealing jewellery, ‘the worst thing that can happen to you… is to get arrested… All the [prison] clerks are black, I am white, and I can tell that racism is at work in reverse here.’ In New York, seeing protesters with ‘placards that…demand money for AIDS research and AIDS care and AIDS medicine,’ she admits thinking: ‘Fuck them all. I’ve got my own damn problems.’ Failing to deliver her new manuscript, addicted to both Ritalin and coke, she ends up setting up an office-bedroom for herself at Doubleday, creating chaos and confusion. ‘None of the people in charge,’ she offers boastfully, ‘have any idea what to do with me or about me. They don’t know how I came to reside in their office, and they can’t figure out how they will get me to leave. So they try to act normal.’
‘Normal,’ for a person who is feted for their talent long before their thirtieth birthday, is extremely relative. ‘A man must be a very great genius,’ Martha Gelhorn once said about her philandering boyfriend, Ernest Hemingway, ‘to make up for being such a loathsome human being.’ Similarly, it would seem that a woman who desires to be celebrated should be a both very, very great genius, and also give no indication that she knows her worth. Lohan, telling interviewers that her plan was to release a perfect pop record and win an Oscar before thirty, then spending her evenings drinking at Les Deux and drink-driving in Santa Monica, gave the distinct impression she had chugged the Kool Aid, too. It did not matter that her last acclaimed performance turned out to be in A Prairie Home Companion; her grand movie star entitlement, along with her unwillingness to exercise her acting muscles, outlasted the white-hot pinnacle of her accomplishment. To be a brilliant author, William Faulkner told the Paris Review, takes ‘ninety-nine percent talent… ninety-nine percent discipline… ninety-nine percent work.’ Acting, too, requires this impossible alchemy, and if it is not feasible to learn whatever thing it is that makes a Joaquin Phoenix or an Isabelle Huppert (or, once, a germinal and eager Lindsay Lohan), it is also not feasible to maintain it without discipline. The work should look effortless, but it still requires effort. Great actors and actresses, great authors, are like the proverbial swan: all glacial chill above the water, and manic exertion underneath.
Divas exert their efforts elsewhere, with results that can be furiously self-sabotaging. Tantrums, barely cute at fifteen, are at thirty-five or forty inexcusable, exhausting. ‘The root of the problem,’ one of Lindsay’s friends anonymously bitched to Nancy Jo Sales in Vanity Fair, ‘was every single person telling her how amazing she is, kissing her ass all the time. It was like, If everyone thinks I’m the shit, then I must be.’ ‘[In rehab] they even have a term for the syndrome,’ Wurtzel writes in More, Now, Again. ‘It is called terminal uniqueness… [addicts] all think we’re special. But the problem is, as I point out to Dr. Singer all the time, I actually am special.’ There is no scene more telling in More, Now, Again than one where, having missed a well-paid advertising shoot for Coach, Wurtzel reels on hearing that her nonattendance has resulted in the job going – shock horror – to one of her biggest rivals. They hired Katie Roiphe ‘to replace me for [the] ad campaign,’ she grumbles. ‘When I talk about her, I use flattery as a dig – I’ll say something about how Katie is so smart but it’s a shame that her book was so dumb.’ Roiphe, most recently newsworthy for her numerous attempts to ‘out’ the author of the Shitty Media Men List, is awful, yes; but it does not occur to Wurtzel that not turning up for work and still expecting to stay hired is the dumbest move of all. The same year Bitch came out, another writer with a well-regarded first book but a disappointing subsequent career was trashed by Jay McInerney, of all people, for appearing in an ad campaign for Amaretto. ‘I still think the idea of a writer doing an ad is appalling,’ he told Publishers Weekly. ‘I was offered a Dewars profile and a Gap ad, and I didn’t do things like that because the day you take money to be an actor, then you’re a whore.’ The ‘whore’ in question was the socialite and fiction author Tama Janowitz, whose short story collection Slaves of New York (1986) fast became a cult hit, but whose later work did not exactly meet the same fate. ‘I just couldn’t understand why I was singled out,’ Janowitz shrugged in a 2016 Guardian interview – adding, in an acid quip not unlike something out of Slaves of New York: ‘and [why] one author would call another author a whore, especially when that author kept marrying rich women.’
Janowitz, who wears hoop earrings and a coy expression in the Amaretto ad, took to fame naturally enough that her relationship with the newly infatuated media looked less like whoring than like romance. She appeared on New York Magazine in 1986 wearing a plunging black dress, posing in an abattoir, the profile calling her ‘exotically pretty, charmingly wacky, and a magnet for calamity’. Slaves of New York had been written between Janowitz’s twenty-third year, and her twenty-eighth. The scale and precipitatory nature of its hype was such that New York ran their cover feature not after the book had been read and critically-acclaimed, as is traditional, but immediately following its star-studded launch party. Janowitz knew Andy Warhol; she was dating, at the time the profile went to press, an oil tycoon. It seemed impossible for her to ascend any higher, making it unsurprising when her next two novels – A Cannibal in Manhattan (1987) and The Male Cross-Dresser Support Group (1992) – were described as ‘tiresome’ and ‘misdirected’, or when the author-star burned through six publicists over six books. Her assertion that she did not write to be liked, only to be interesting, was borne out by the press’s treatment of her: irritated by her brattiness and intrigued only by her shortcomings, her failure to achieve a sophomore hit offering them some cruel gratification. ‘You know how New York is,’ she sighed in another, later profile in New York Magazine in 2016, promoting a memoir. ‘You get a success, and even before you’re even allowed to have the success they chop you down and say, “Well, who does she think she is?” You know, New York is vicious to its successes.’
More recently, it did not take a genius of observation to draw parallels between the fate of other first-time-author stars, and the assassination of the first short story collection by Kristen Roupenian. Famous overnight for writing a relatable short story about bummed-out heterosexual fucking for the New Yorker, Roupenian was taken down a peg or five in reviews of her actual book. ‘Cat Person’, which surprised the internet by proving that a work of fiction could go viral in the same way as a controversial personal essay, received 4.5 million hits, making it the most read New Yorker online article of all time. (Roupenian, at thirty-eight, is not a startlingly precocious first-time author in the same way Janowitz or Wurtzel were. What makes her easier to read as one is ‘Cat Person’’s apparent specificity to millennial life, as well as its mostly-millennial reader base.) How could You Know You Want It, which Scout Press reportedly spent seven figures on, live up to this publicity? Roupenian has yet to exhibit any particularly diva-ish behaviour – her sin, if she committed any sin at all, was unpreparedness for her audience. There can be no greater nightmare for the newly-famous artist than the anecdote about Damien Hirst’s first meeting with Lucian Freud, who saw the best artwork he ever made, A Thousand Years, on show in 1990 and remarked to him: ‘I fear you started with the final act, my boy.’
To see the thing in person is to know that Freud was right. No other work by Hirst is as affecting, and A Thousand Years is not only a perfect metaphor for life, but an apt metaphor for stardom. Sustained famousness, for actors, artists, or hit authors, is by nature cyclical – a project, praised or criticised, propels them into the collective consciousness, becomes old news, and thus requires them to evolve or to accept erasure. A true artist, who dies little deaths for each new work, must self-renew. Earlier this year, right around the time I first started to talk about the Lohan werewolf movie, Netflix released Russian Doll (2019), an eight-part existential comedy in which a woman – hit in traffic just as she turns thirty-six – dies, only to find herself re-living her birthday party, then her death, ad infinitum. Written, produced by and starring the singular Natasha Lyonne, it was a comeback that seemed to riff on the very idea of a comeback, as well as an ode to breaking cycles masterminded by a former addict. It was remarkable, percipient, and naked, and it seems to me now that if any former child-star-addicts wanted to know how to reintroduce themselves as public figures, having first lain low to cultivate their genius, they could do far worse than looking to Lyonne.
At sixteen, Lyonne appeared in a Woody Allen film, and at eighteen she played the funny, horny lead in Slums of Beverly Hills. By her early twenties, she was getting DUIs, strung out on heroin and living in such squalor that her dull cop landlord, Michael Rapaport, wrote a long exposé for Jane. ‘Before we had Lindsay Lohan to kick around,’ an Entertainment Weekly interview deadpanned in 2012, ‘we had Natasha Lyonne.’ ‘Long before… Lindsay Lohan terrorised New York,’ the New York Post agreed the next year, ‘there was Natasha Lyonne.’ Hoarse like Lindsay, sharp like Wurtzel, and a onetime Brooklyn socialite like Tama Janowitz, Lyonne is never funnier or more interesting than when she plays some heightened version of Natasha Lyonne, meaning a woman who identifies not with the classic heroines of Hollywood, but with New Hollywood’s male dirtbag-hustlers. (Her great idol is Columbo’s Peter Falk, who is ‘nobody’s second banana; this guy is a real motherfucker,’ she told New York Magazine — adding that she sees herself as being aligned with a ‘sort of male, 70s typology. That kind of genderless sort of person.’) Lyonne made her comeback the same way I described Lohan’s downfall: gradually, then all at once, beginning with small parts in indie movies, vouched for by her friends, then playing herself – or an incarcerated, womanising version of herself – in Orange is the New Black.
In light of the fact that she excels at being herself, it should be no surprise that in her comeback interviews Lyonne did not feign ignorance of her chaotic reputation, nor suggest that those who called her unreliable or sick were wrong to do so. ‘Nobody,’ she shrugged to New York Magazine, ‘was eager for my return. Let’s not mistake this for a Robert Downey Jr. scenario.’ For Lohan, once, it might have been a Robert Downey Jr. scenario; now, it is only possible for her to make like Lyonne, to become in increments the thing she might have been without drugs, without DUIs, without bad parenting and teenage arrogance and titanic entitlement. To do, in other words, the exercise – the work required to make good work. In that New York Magazine profile of Lyonne, there’s a passage where she talks about her early desire to go to film school, begging off when it occurred to her that she could build a better, more advanced syllabus in her own time, in her own style. ‘They were watching Apocalypse Now,’ she says, ‘and I was like, I know you all don’t think I’m going to give you 60 grand to watch Apocalypse Now and break it down with a bunch of teenagers.’ What it made me think of most was a scene in More, Now, Again, where Elizabeth Wurtzel also watches Apocalypse Now ‘for what must be the twenty-eighth time’ , and has an entirely different revelation:
[After,] I watch Hearts of Darkness, the documentary Francis Ford Coppola’s wife made about the making of that war epic. What a mess it was… And then it turns into one of the best movies ever made… Maybe this book will work out too. All this mess, all these people overworked and overwhelmed and crazy from this thing I’ve been making for far too long, and maybe it will all be worth it.
History – at least since 1998 – has proven Bitch to be a less successful product of human collateral, professional chaos and insanity than Apocalypse Now. Better than looking at great art borne out of selfishness and feeling justified in one’s own bad behaviour is concluding that not all great art is made on the back of others’ suffering: that for the artist, it is usually better to be diligent, self-sacrificing. Maintaining a muscle is, above all else, about pain; the ability to push past what is God-given or easy, so that what was already remarkable becomes sublime. Now the owner of two failing Lohan-branded beach resorts, in Mykonos and Rhodes, it would appear that Lindsay Lohan is not warming up, but cooling down. ‘I think back like, “Oh my God, did I act like that? Ten years ago?”’ she said in an interview last year. I knew when she said ‘act’, she was talking about bad behaviour. Still, it did not keep me from thinking about how she acted fifteen years ago, onscreen; the way that even barely flexing, in repose, she could be moving.