Why Are They Famous?
Owen Wilson: The Monsters Within and Without
By Jabulani Leffall
Aug 30, 2007

An adage about talent management quietly exists throughout the corridors of power in the world of entertainment. That adage is this: great dramatic actors are often manic and moody outside of the performance space. And talented comedic thespians, on the other hand, are often somber and melancholy off stage and screen.

For the former distinction, Val Kilmer, Sean Penn and Jeffrey Wright immediately come to mind. For the latter, one need look no further than Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, who on the set of Dreamgirls turned it all off when the helmer yelled “cut” and Martin Lawrence, whose peculiar jaunt down Ventura Blvd. a few years back was indicative of his bouts with depression or something horribly metaphysical. Lastly and most recently, we have Owen Wilson, who this week was admitted to the hospital for a reported suicide attempt – not a laughing matter in the least bit.

Examining Owen Wilson’s ordeal is tough for me personally as someone who has been depressed yet admittedly aspires to fame and riches -- okay just riches -- while knowing that both are fleeting. I started to take the easy way out of talking about Wilson by simply defecating on Alberto Gonzales for ten paragraphs and then enjoying my weekend. But, Wilson’s dilemma is closer to home and my keyboard stuck to my hands and wouldn’t let me type when I began to muse about how old “A-Gonz” dishonored his dad by saying his dishonorable discharge from the Bush Cabinet was “still better than his (deceased construction worker) father’s best days.”

Yeah I know, I’m on the 8:15 shuttle to "Tangent City" because Wilson makes me uncomfortable but I’ll get off now at this stop.  Here goes. In order to attempt to understand or at least empathize with people in the public eye, particularly performers such as Wilson, it’s important to step outside the normal box we put them in and the box we often find ourselves in when judging what should and should not make an individual happy. In other words, forget about Owen Wilson's fresh-to-death Santa Monica manse and the millions he has in the bank and the fact that he can afford to drop off, beg off or quit a project or for that matter sit at Starbucks for five days straight without even buying coffee.

Get in his shoes if you can, not the Bruno Magli’s but the metaphoric ones and think about how you might handle things as a “normal,” person, let alone someone who may have a psychological and/or physiological predisposition or tendency toward mania, depression, addiction or psychosis -- the lighter fluid on the pre-existing fire ignited by the media and the public's behind-the-velvet-rope attitude toward those who have more money and fame than us and appear to be more fortunate than we are.

Got those shoes on?  Ring, ring, get your rich, beautiful ass up! Before you can brush your teeth, your BlackBerry, cell, landline or iPhone is buzzing off the hook.

Message one: your personal assistant.

Message two: your manager.

Message three: your business manager.

Message four: lawyer on the line.

Message five: your agent’s assistant with your agent on the phone.

Message six: The production office of the company making your latest project.

Message seven: The big studio working with the production company making your latest project.

Message eight:  Your publicist.

Message nine: Variety reporter.

Message ten: The Hollywood Reporter, reporter.

Message eleven: Somebody you supposedly met at Cannes or was it Sundance? You have no idea who this person is.

Message twelve: Your relative wants you to put your wayward cousin into the “movies out there, so he can be successful like you.”

Message thirteen:  Intrepid blogger/reporter/gadfly and Hollywood schedenfreude writer extraordinaire, Nikki Finke is threatening to write a post detailing why you’re not answering your phones.

Skip, skip, skip, skip, save, save, delete, delete, delete, delete, delete with a shrug and shake of the head, delete with a smirk. Definitely save the last one as you don’t want your picture next to a headline that says: “Wigging out!” Now, feed your dog even though you haven’t eaten yet and start your long, busy-for-the-sake-of-business, day.

Everyone and anyone wants something from you. Subsequently, you’re stepping out into a world where you can’t even go to a urinal without someone saying, “hey what’s up baby, I just loved you in Royal Tenenbaums, ‘Wildcats, pew, pew, pew!'”

Walk down the street and listen to screaming, grown women and uh, men who swoon at the sight of you or worse, mumble like idiots. Try to fake it with a pimple-faced store clerk, who refers to you simply as Wedding Crashers when you and he both know that’s not your name. Politely tell the old lady, holding her small pooch, that “actually, you’re thinking of my brother, Luke, he was in Blue Streak with ‘that funny black fella who was jogging in the middle of the afternoon down a busy street in the sweltering-hot Valley.’”

By ten in the morning you’ve had it. You’ve got your own issues, deep conundrums no one knows about, perhaps not even you, at least not on a conscious level. Here’s what makes things worse: yours is a world of Las Vegas Blvd. on shrooms, without the shrooms or the Vegas Strip. Lights or cameras are constantly flashing in your face like falling stars, maniacal lightening bugs sizzling your retina all the time. You stand on blood-wine red carpets, with faker-than-fake d-bags asking you the same damn questions as last week, last month, last film, last appearance. 

You don’t even know how you got there but you’re sitting in a seat telling the same friggin' story about how it was so great to work with such and such on the 18,000th junket interview this hour. Then you’re glad-handing Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert and Ryan Seacrest, all of whom you’ve somehow managed to see or talk to – within a four-hour window - at a taping, via satellite, via phone. This is for television, you know.

With that, you’re burned out. You tell yourself it’s external, environmental. After all, the same human popular culture that creates, celebrates and scrutinizes you, is the same pop culture that had a rabid throng screaming for Barabas while ordering the death of Jesus, the same culture that convinced millions that Hitler was a visionary, the culture that adored Princess Diana of Windsor until it killed her indirectly through constantly obsessing over her. And yes, the same culture that will miss the point entirely and say, "Owen Wilson ain't Jesus or Hitler."

Indeed it's not apples and oranges. Popularity, as part of our broader stratification, is a sharp, double-edged sword with victory and defeat on either end, a beautiful hopping, psychedelic frog whose bodily secretions can be used as deadly darts.

But perhaps it’s internal too and you’re on an island all alone. If you check into a hospital it’s news. If you see a therapist, news. If you’re punching a heavy bag at the gym too hard, while screaming to vent, it’s news. If you’re taking highly potent drugs, just to come down from the most potent drug of all, fame, it’s breaking news, which is in fact breaking you down, physically and most important, mentally. Then add your internal struggles that we all go through with the external world you live in, a realm where only a chosen few have or ever will tread.

You want to shut your phone off now but you can’t, the public needs you to feel better about themselves. “Make me laugh funny man, yeah I know you’re tired and you’re just here to get a steak before you rest your weary head but do the You, Me and Dupree dance for me please, before you finish your food. You owe it to me superstar." 

You say, enough! Despite the movie posters and the constant calls, the repeated adulation, what does life mean in general and what does yours really mean in particular? You are one of billions, living on the third planet from a medium-sized star, which is part of one solar system, part of a relatively small Milkyway, sitting on a tendon of one spiral spinning in the vast Universe. Wow.

Back to earth and here come the reports, accounts of your life, not rendered by you of course.

The 38-year-old actor will not appear in “Tropic Thunder,” a DreamWorks movie, already six weeks into production in Hawaii starring Jack Black, Robert Downey Jr., and Ben Stiller, who is directing.

No-nothing pundits say, “What do you mean, he’s not going to Hawaii? Ben Stiller’s your friend, how could you do this to him?!”

Still want those shoes?

While you’re in an ambulance, commentators speak not about you but of the out-of-control culture that causes Lindsay Lohan and company to run amok, lose it. They also quote Smokey Robinson, “The tears of a clown when there is no one around,” almost mocking your very real pain.

News outlets don’t responsibly speak to experts about the cathartic, yet debilitating institution of stardom and how it can be a powder keg when intertwined with the personal intricacies of manic-depression, bipolar disorder and other forms of mental illness. No, that would be the sane thing to do.

But the world you and they live in is insane, so the media thinks, why not mention how ironic and eerily coincidental it is that you’re next big-screen appearance is in The Darjeeling Limited, slated for release next month, in which you star with Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman.

Listen to lazy-ass reporters play the life-imitates-art-imitates-life card again as they mention that your role in said film is a “distraught man -- bandaged throughout the film -- who other characters imply has attempted suicide.” Eerie indeed, but not for the reasons everyone’s talking about.

Issue a statement to the press that you didn’t write, asking for privacy that you and everybody knows you ain’t gonna get:

Following a discussion between the cast and filmmakers, all have agreed `The Darjeeling Limited' will open as planned on September 29," Fox Searchlight said in a statement Wednesday.

Whew, thank God, you thought it had been pushed back, what a relief!

Thus sayeth industry analyst Paul Dergarabedian: Certainly it presents a challenge if you have a film top-lined by a star who's having a troubled situation. It would give most marketing executives pause, everyone's trying to be sensitive to what he's going through.

Oh, okay, everyone's trying to be sensitive, gee that’s swell.

Newscasters to Owen Wilson: Our thoughts, prayers and patronizing soundbites are with you. Just one more note, from Viacom executive upstairs,  production has wrapped on another Owen Wilson vehicle: Paramount's Drillbit Taylor, set for a March release.  Now we return you to our regularly scheduled program, “730 days later: Waterlogged poor people still losing big,” our ongoing series on the 2nd anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Oprah? Anderson Cooper? Anybody, are you still there? Oh, you are? Why are you still there again?

All jokes aside, as I close this “blolumn” out, I feel like a hypocrite -- even more than usual -- for not going into detail about how I personally relate to Wilson because on the real, I don’t want ya’ll in my business and right now I still have that selfish luxury.

The lesson here is that saying the “grass is always greener” is an understatement as most people have no idea what the Owen Wilsons of the world really want, desire or need and sadly don't care because they're staring at the manse, the money and everything else, trying to get it for themselves.

Further, because people like myself and millions of others who have experienced depression can’t escape the likelihood of job discrimination or social stigma and can't afford cutting-edge treatment, we sometimes tend to tell our public figures going through the same things as us to “get over it!” But sometimes they can’t.

Let us remember that John Belushi, Chris Farley and now Owen Wilson, though fortunately he’s still alive, are a testimony not only to that old comedic talent adage but a reminder that fame and money can make you a commoditized, funny-on-demand robot even though you’re still flesh and blood. It’s also an aide memoire that keeping a sick world laughing and being the life of the party because you tell a joke or two is ultimately no substitute for sanity and self-awareness.



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