Be Careful What You Wish For

You're the best-looking kid in your graduating class, and you secretly dream of hopping a bus to Hollywood where you'll be immediately discovered and turned, overnight, into a star. Stranger things have happened, right? Well, before you leave home, we suggest you read the following cautionary tales. Perhaps these six case studies of "instant" fame--Julia Roberts, Rob Lowe, Molly Ringwald, John Travolta, Linda Blair and Christopher Atkins--will make you think twice about what can happen after your dreams come true.

Case #1:

Rob Lowe

Case Study: Talent That's Only Skin Deep

Home movies have always figured in Rob Lowe's story, right from the start. As a teen in Malibu, he and pals Emilio Estevez and Charlie Sheen made their own films while waiting to break into real ones. It was something of a foregone conclusion that Lowe would get a shot, because while there are many pretty boys in Hollywood, there aren't many as drop-dead beautiful as he is. Lowe marked time making TV shows till he and Estevez got their big break in 1983, in Francis Coppola's florid film version of The Outsiders. In a cast packed with the stars of tomorrow, he stood out: that face, that body, that nude shower scene all drove prepubescent girls into a frenzy. This marked the start of Lowe's tour of duty as a teen sex symbol, which lasted five long years and ended, as it began, with fleeting footage of Lowe in the altogether.

By the time he'd made the lame older woman/younger man sex comedy, Class, and the unsuccessful film version of John Irving's novel The Hotel New Hampshire, Lowe was already more famous offscreen--many a fan cut out photos of him on dates with Melissa Gilbert--than he was on. The box-office failure of his first starring vehicle, Oxford Blues, did not dent his popularity. Lowe then found himself in two back-to-back films, matching cinematic bookends that managed to create a lot of talk. The first of these was St. Elmo's Fire, a shallow saga about Life After College that created the offscreen clique of chummy actors called the "Brat Pack." Lowe and (St. Elmo's co-star) Demi Moore then made About Last Night . . . , a shallow saga about Moving In Together, a long way from the David Mamet play that spawned it. These two films made Lowe look like a leading man, but "look" is the key word: Even the much-publicized promise of Lowe in a jock strap couldn't scare up an audience for the movie that came--and went--between St. Elmo's Fire and About Last Night . . . , the ice-hockey drama Youngblood. Lowe retreated from the burden of carrying any one movie on his shoulders by carrying off the small role of a small-town retarded lad in Square Dance--and won critical praise, though no box office.

Aping Ryan O'Neal in What's Up Doc? for Doc director Peter Bogdanovich in a flat farce called Illegally Yours did nothing for Lowe. Then director Bob Swaim tricked up Masquerade, a gigolo-lusting-after-wealth thriller, by encouraging Lowe and Meg Tilly to do (decidedly wan) imitations of Montgomery Clift and Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress. The descent had started. Soon it snowballed into an avalanche. Lowe made his lamentable singing debut--playing Prince Charming opposite someone dressed up as Snow White--on the 1989 Oscarcast. In just one musical interlude he became a Hollywood joke; he topped that when a legal suit was filed saying that he had "used his celebrity status" to induce a jailbait-aged lass into having sex while his camcorder caught it all on videotape. Though the charges were later dismissed, the media and countless comedians had a field day at Lowe's expense; pirated copies of the videotape in question rapidly made this Lowe's most-seen performance.

One might not have guessed, after these two public spectacles, that Lowe would think it prudent to play a devilish seducer of innocent victims whom he videotapes while they are engaged in sex--but Lowe, amazingly, did. Though the trailer for Bad Influence, with Lowe, on videotape, peering out of a TV set and commanding, "Don't touch that dial!" made audiences laugh knowingly, it didn't sell any tickets when the film opened. After that bomb and a straight-to-video disaster, Stroke of Midnight--in which he, unbelievably, played Prince Charming to Jennifer Grey's updated Cinderella--offers of leading roles in films dried up for Lowe. Nowadays, he's reduced to trying to make it appear that he's both a good sport and not just another pretty face--in other words, making like a young George Hamilton--playing cameos in hits (Wayne's World), duds (The Dark Backward), and even on Broadway--that last refuge of the out-of-work Hollywood actor. Well, perhaps not the last--he bravely (read: foolishly) thought it wise to get mowed over by Maggie Smith and Natasha Richardson in the BBC/Great Performances televersion of Suddenly, Last Summer.

Case #2: John Travolta

Case Study: The Pinup of an Entire Generation

If the studio star-making system died in the late '50s, it must have rolled over in its grave 10 years later with the arrival of such genuinely new faces as Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand. "The ugs," as one studio exec termed these stars, changed all existing notions of how famous faces should look, which inevitably paved the way for a teen sensation that regular-looking kids could call their own. Whether one thought John Travolta's droopy eyelids and perpetual pout gave him a look that was "smoldering," "simian" or "stupid"--and all three opinions were voiced when he popped up in the 1976 Carrie--teens were already hip to him as Vinnie on the hit series "Welcome Back, Kotter," causing Hollywood to sit up and take notice. That's par for the course--what's unusual is that Travolta's first two starring roles were in Saturday Night Fever and Grease, both all-time moneymaking champs.

Saturday Night Fever, really just another teen coming-of-age story, turned into a Zeitgeist phenomenon that spoke directly to the hearts of teenagers everywhere. When Travolta strutted his stuff to The Bee Gees' "Stayin' Alive," young movie audiences went wild, then went home and put big posters of Tony Manero on their bedroom walls. Travolta's likable turn, equal parts obtuse-hothead-you-knew-in-high-school and '70s-sensitive-lad-yearning-for-some-thing-better, garnered him not only an Oscar nomination, but the cover of Time magazine as well.

Sounds grand, but earlier case studies like Betty Grable or Jayne Mansfield could have told Travolta that it's no picnic becoming the pinup of your generation--and Travolta, in that tacky white suit on that tacky flashing-lights floor, really was the icon of the Disco Decade. That a pinup's fans move on to a new flavor-of-the-month wasn't immediately apparent, because Travolta's Saturday Night Fever backers--Paramount and the Robert Stigwood Organization--had just the right follow-up vehicle for him, the movie version of the lamebrain Broadway musical Grease. Turned out in black leather and a ducktail do, Travolta seemed--at least to '70s kiddies whose idea of the '50s was formed by "Happy Days"--the very embodiment of a sexy Bad Boy. Grease kidded the '50s without a soupcon of wit, and the entire cast was much too old, but it didn't matter: co-star Olivia Newton-John had a top-10 hit song, Travolta did a mean hand-jive, and the money rolled in.

When Travolta teamed up with Lily Tomlin to make Moment by Moment, a dementedly bad soap opera, his lack of any real acting ability was brutally exposed: that ever-ready twinkling grin couldn't hide the bad script and worse performances. Stung by jeering reviews, Travolta withdrew until Paramount came up with Urban Cowboy, which owed most of its success to the scene-stealing, bull-riding Debra Winger. Travolta then teamed up with Carrie director Brian De Palma for the tired Hitchcock knockoff Blow Out, which quickly died. After three movies that had done nothing for him, Travolta decided to mine the gold in sequelsville--an idea that sounded good on paper, but went disastrously (if riotously) astray.

For the Fever follow-up, Staying Alive, Travolta pumped up, up, up under the tutelage of auteur Sylvester Stallone, then bared his newly buffed bod in a Bob Mackie-designed loincloth--a mood decidedly more Chippendales than the film's setting, Broadway. Though he'd resisted the inevitable reteaming with Grease co-star Newton-John--he'd wisely passed on playing opposite her in Xanadu--Travolta now cashed that chip and together they made a dreadful bit of whimsy, Two of a Kind, that was so on-the-cheap, it looked like a TV movie blown up for the big screen.

It seemed pretty clear that Travolta's massive following of just a few years back had disappeared. But in an attempt to revive the "good old days," Travolta reteamed with Urban Cowboy director James Bridges on Perfect. As Travolta had bared nearly all on a cover of Rolling Stone to hype Staying Alive, he was the least likely person alive to play a Rolling Stone reporter hot on the trail of "airheads" who had "pumped up" their bods. The whole thing might've worked better had Jamie Lee Curtis and Travolta switched roles, with her as the journalist and him as the aerobics instructor. Perfect quickly sank from sight and with it went the last traces of Travolta's starring days.

He disappeared for four long years--a lifetime in Hollywood--till he tried the comeback trail with The Experts, a fizzle you don't want to see on video. Another low-budget no-brainer followed, with Travolta playing fourth banana to Kirstie Alley, an infant and--the humiliation!--Bruce Willis's voice; unexpectedly, Look Who's Talking hit a nerve with baby boomers having babies, and proved a box-office windfall. There was lots of "Look Who's Back" chatter, but it just wasn't true: everything else Travolta touched, from Look Who's Talking Too and the ever-heard-of-it? Chains of Gold to Boris and Natasha and Shout, stiffed. While there's no doubt a killing is yet to be made if only he'd return to TV series work, Travolta has only dipped a toe into that pond, doing a Harold Pinter play for director Robert Altman. You missed it? No, you didn't.

Case #3: Julia Roberts

Case Study: The Cinderella Syndrome (a.k.a. "Poof! It's Midnight")

You think she doesn't belong here in this history of career burnout? Think again. It all started out so well, too . . .

Julia Roberts came out of the gate looking like a thoroughbred who was born to race. She deserves credit for making the best of the early opportunities she was given, and blame for not making the most of the rest of them. Roberts's rise, meteoric even by Hollywood standards, began well before the public had even heard of her. If few moviegoers caught her two 1988 "teen" films, the dud Satisfaction or the sleeper Mystic Pizza, the word shot around the industry that here was the Next Big Thing. Some older folk likened her to Katharine Ross, another gamine golden girl who rode a winning grin and a tawny mane of hair to stardom in two back-to-back hit pictures. Roberts, however, eclipsed even those expectations with her next four movies, but as we will see, she didn't escape the same fate that befell Ross. Let Ross tell what happened: "I did become what you call hot . . . I got offered so much stuff that I ran in the opposite direction. I didn't know how to deal with it." Nor did Roberts.

Hollywood was so impressed that Roberts held her own in the high diva territory of Steel Magnolias, she garnered an Oscar nomination. Then came her genuinely charming performance in the 1990 monster hit Pretty Woman. It was her first good role--and her last good one to date. The film made her the biggest star in the movie industry, which gave a needed jolt to Flatliners, a New Age gothic redo of Altered States that made zero acting demands on Roberts. Suddenly her private life became a matter of public record; her romances with co-stars--_Satisfaction_'s Liam Neeson, Steel Magnolias' Dylan McDermott, Flatliners' Kiefer Sutherland--had America all agog over which "prince" would win the hand of this Cinderella-like "princess." Stomach-turning to be sure, but Roberts, to her credit, didn't seek out this tabloidish publicity; instead, she had to endure having her every move scrutinized by the press as if she were one of the Royals.

In a role abandoned by Kim Basinger, the damsel-in-distress heroine of Sleeping With the Enemy, Roberts rode the wave of her popularity to score yet another box-office bull's-eye. This by-the-numbers thriller could not have worked with anyone else; it was the audience's powerful affection for Roberts that drove the film to megasuccess. Despite the box-office numbers, a discerning few noted that Roberts was giving the same performance--plucky spunk, big hair, disarming laugh--from movie to movie. This is, of course, how many a star's career was built under the studio system, but it didn't seem to be anything Roberts was doing by choice. Roberts's next movies confirmed her small range. Dying Young had almost no call for her signature honeyed charms, but she fell back on them anyway. Sold solely on her name, this saga of a nurse who cares for, then falls for, a dying man who does not die, failed to draw an audience. Hollywood was mildly aghast. To recoup the loss, Roberts went into a project that must have sounded like a sure thing: co-starring with both Dustin Hoffman and Robin Williams, who would bear the responsibility for pulling in the audience. This was Hook, and so much was wrong with it that perhaps only a handful of people noticed just how bad Roberts was--in a role she should have pulled off easily. Apparently at a complete loss as to how to play Tinkerbell, Roberts was so clearly ill-at-ease that, grinning and glassy-eyed in a big ball gown, she seemed to have wandered onto the wrong set.

Roberts then did the unthinkable: at exactly the moment she needed to show off her ability to bounce back--_Pretty Woman II_ would have been a smart commercial move--she stopped working altogether. Not counting her supporting role in Hook--that's what it was, regardless of billing--or her fleeting cameo in The Player, Roberts has not been on-screen in a starring role in nearly two years now, and it's been even longer than that since she carried her weight in a lead part. This is an eternity in Hollywood, as the male Julia Roberts, John Travolta, proved. There have been several projects that didn't get made, owing to money and/or co-star squabbles; lately she's formed her own production company and cut a deal with former Fox honcho Joe Roth.

There's no question that Hollywood will invest in her again--anyone with an eye knows she's got the proverbial "it." But can she get "it" together? And if she does, will her marquee value ever again make a film as lackluster as Sleeping With the Enemy into a smash hit? The smart money says that Roberts has seen her glory days; as one studio insider put it, "I want to see her back on top. I just don't want to spend my money to risk putting her there. Let someone else do that--then, if she comes back strong, I'll pay her whatever she wants." The end of this story has yet to be written; it sure isn't "happily ever after" for now.

Case #4: Molly Ringwald

Case Study: "Look at Me, I'm Sandra Dee"

There's a lyric in a song from Grease that captures the inevitable dilemma of young female actresses who, like '50s teen idol Sandra Dee, become stars playing nice high-schoolers: "Look at me/I'm Sandra Dee/Lousy with virginity." It's not precisely that one isn't allowed to grow up on-screen--it's just that what teens love when they're teens, they discard on principle when they leave their teens. Just ask Molly Ringwald, who went from being the most admired and imitated young actress of the mid-'80s to an out-of-work actress in the early '90s. And Ringwald had more to offer than such factory creations as Dee.

Though her movie career started fitfully--Paul Mazursky's critically acclaimed Tempest, a few TV films, the big-screen flop Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone--Ringwald came into her own when she was cast in John Hughes's 1984 Sixteen Candles, where she was both poignant and sassy as a gawky teen whose wedding-obsessed family forgets her birthday. It's still easy to see why Ringwald--and the movie--were a smash: she was the first teen in film history to look, and act, like a real 16-year-old. The following year, Hughes's The Breakfast Club was an even bigger hit, with Ringwald cast as an icy Miss Popularity who dreads spending a Saturday in detention with misfits like Judd Nelson, Ally Sheedy, Emilio Estevez and (Sixteen Candles co-star) Anthony Michael Hall.

The Hughes/Ringwald formula for success--talk frankly about sex, but don't do it--is revealed in the scene where Nelson insults Ringwald by asking, "Are you a virgin? Have you ever been felt up? Over the bra? Under the blouse? Calvins in a ball on the front seat, past 11, on a school night?" Of course not! The following year, 1986, Ringwald had the sort of nightmarish, roller-coaster ride you think only occurs in cliche-ridden movies about Big, Bad Tinseltown: she turned 18, starred in her third John Hughes hit, Pretty in Pink, landed on the cover of Time magazine--and then fell, hard, out of public favor. The slide began with a tempest in a teapot: Ringwald stood up Lillian Gish for a People magazine interview and photo shoot, which the magazine dutifully reported. The resulting negative publicity made it seem as if it had been Gish, and not Ringwald, who was America's sweetheart.

But then Ringwald made a more serious career error by deciding not to star in Warren Beatty's long-planned movie about Andy Warhol's burned-out "superstar" Edie Sedgwick. Whether that was truly as big a mistake as Hayley Mills had made when she turned down the leading role in Stanley Kubrick's Lolita is a matter of conjecture--Edie was never made--but it's a fact that Ringwald ought not to have agreed to appear, instead, in the Beatty/James Toback film The Pick-up Artist. "Everybody tried to talk me out of doing it," Ringwald said later. Well, everybody was right: the movie, more a vehicle for Robert Downey Jr. than Ringwald, disappeared quickly and started the actress on a run of seven straight duds in a row.

Many of these--For Keeps, Strike It Rich, King Lear--were such bad or, at best, mediocre career choices that their failure surprised no one. However, Fresh Horses offered Ringwald the semi-adult part of a blowzy, wrong-side-of-the-tracks gal who enters a doomed affair with a rich boy who's slumming. Having her bland Pretty in Pink co-star Andrew McCarthy cast opposite her killed whatever chance the picture might have had by deliberately harking back to the very kind of Hughes film both players were trying to--needed to--escape. Ditto for Ringwald's turn in Betsy's Wedding, which seemed like a remake of Sixteen Candles--with Ringwald in the supporting role of the bride.

It's tempting to think that these films must have been the best scripts Ringwald was being offered, but that's not quite the whole story: if Ringwald, and not her mother, had read the screenplay for David Lynch's Blue Velvet, perhaps Ringwald would have played the part that instead introduced Laura Dern to an adult audience. Though Ringwald's lately been making TV films like Something to Live For: The Alison Gertz Story, it's too soon to say that she's out of mainstream movies for good. She's only in her mid-twenties and she can act. The meteoric Molly, though, is forever gone from the sky.

Case #5: Linda Blair

Case Study: Too Much Too Soon

Like Drew Barrymore a while later, Linda Blair blasted to lasting fame in her first big film. She managed this feat by playing the demon-possessed, soup-hurling, obscenity-spewing preteen in The Exorcist, and though it wasn't a pretty sight, Hollywood was convinced for a second there that she could act--she was nominated for an Oscar. When Mercedes McCambridge came forward to announce that she'd done the memorable vocal work, Blair's performance was seen for what it was: deft special effects. In any case, the film's record-breaking repeat business doomed Blair to a future of working in front of audiences who forever linked her with this one grotesque role; in other words, she faced the inverse of twinkly Shirley Temple's fate.

Offscreen rumors about Blair's fast-lane lifestyle led Hollywood to see her as a trouble child, and she landed such on-the-nose parts as the underage reform-school girl who is raped--by fellow inmates wielding a broom handle--in the TV movie Born Innocent. Then, in Airport 1975, as a critically ill passenger, she beamed happily while being serenaded by singing nun Helen Reddy. Next there was another title-tells-all TV movie, Sarah T.--Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic. By the time she returned to her key role in Exorcist II: The Heretic, Blair had played so many victims that she was something of a joke, one that got even louder laughs thanks to this bad sequel, which was so unfrightening it was funny--and a box-office disaster. No one had exactly sparked to Blair's tap-dancing to "Lullaby of Broadway" in Exorcist II, yet she tried, in Roller Boogie, to change her image into the perky disco-skater-next-door. When there were no takers, Blair resigned herself to giving her public what they wanted--movies like Hell Night.

As Blair matured, she became a chipmunk-cheeked, chubby former child star, moving from reform-school-girl films to women-in-prison movies. An all-too-typical latter-day Blair movie is the trashy 1983 Chained Heat. In an attempt to make the top-billed Blair appear to be the babe that the script insists she is, the movie is crawling with overaged starlets--Stella Stevens, Tamara Dobson, Edy Williams, Sybil Danning, Louisa Moritz--but, to put it kindly, one is not convinced. Unlike her acting counterpart Pia Zadora, Blair didn't marry well, so she continued to grind out terrible movies like Bedroom Eyes 2 and Savage Streets and Up Your Alley--and on, and on, and on.

Blair's Airport 1975 turn had been sent up in the parody Airplane! and, after the success of the similarly daft The Naked Gun, Blair attempted to join the movie-spoof bandwagon with the 1990 joke version of The Exorcist entitled Repossessed. Alas, there wasn't really any reason to kid this genre--Blair's Exorcist II: The Heretic had already done the job. Willing, if not ready and able, Blair demonstrated that her comedy skills are on par with the grown-up Annette Funicello, who had tried a similar career spoof, Back to the Beach, with equally unsuccessful results. These days, Blair turns up, alongside other faded faces, in showcases like the "Perry Mason" TV movies.

Case #6: Christopher Atkins

Case Study: "Shoulder Cut of Johnny"

In The Oscar, one of those tired-but-true Hollywood exposes about the venality of Hollywood, studio chief Joseph Cotten barks unhappily to a talent scout, "You bring me meat. It has all different names: Prime Rib of Gloria, Shoulder Cut of Johnny--meat!" It's been ever thus: some meat develops the ability to learn as it goes along (Rock Hudson, Tony Curtis, Robert Wagner), but most of it spoils very quickly (Troy Donahue, Guy Madison, Tab Hunter). Christopher Atkins, who belongs in this latter group, won a nationwide talent hunt to be Brooke Shields's nudity-friendly playmate in the 1980 The Blue Lagoon.

When one looks at this movie today, it's hard to say why he was chosen, aside from his pronounced resemblance to another filet then in favor, Stars Wars' Mark Hamill. Perhaps director Randal Kleiser guessed correctly that Atkins, with a kisser every bit as blank as Shields's, would not get in the way of teens filling in the spaces with their own adolescent daydreams about coming of age on that ravishing island. That theory at least helps to explain how a movie this mindless could have turned out to be the runaway hit of its year, turning Atkins--who'd been a designer jeans model with no acting aspirations--into a movie star.

Then Atkins was cast opposite another teen queen of the day, Kristy McNichol, in The Pirate Movie, a bizarre, ultra-arch mix of Beach Party movies with Gilbert & Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance that failed just as quickly as you might guess it would. No one blamed Atkins; in fact, he is so blatantly unable to act, there's no one to blame for anything in his career except the idiots who cast him. "Idiots" is not too strong a term for the people who gave Atkins top billing in A Night in Heaven, no matter how prestigious their prior credentials look on paper: Nashville screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury, Rocky director John Avildsen, Gorky Park producers Howard Koch Jr. and Gene Kirkwood. This is the so-bad-you've-gotta-see-it-to-believe-it story of a shy schoolmarm's adulterous affair with her much younger pupil, who is stripping his way through college. Here, Atkins really is a slab of meat on display: bumping it, grinding it, and--for the big finish--baring it all, at gunpoint, for the schoolmarm's outraged hubby (who growls, "I wanna see you dance!"). Exposed in more ways than one, Atkins's movie career came to a screeching halt.

He disappeared, then resurfaced later on TV's "Dallas" as the swimming teacher of J.R.'s son--and, natch, the much younger lover of J.R.'s wife. The hit series should have been a good showcase, and he certainly looked fit in the Speedos he wore in almost every scene, but when it ended, the slide continued. Atkins then started making you've-never-heard-of-'em movies like Mortuary Academy and, by 1989, he showed up way, way down on the cast list in a Kirk Cameron dud called Listen to Me, alongside such other has-beens as Quinn Cummings and never-weres like Moon Zappa, Jason Gould and Christopher Rydell. Where can you go after two lines of dialogue in a Kirk Cameron movie? He might have been rescued from this fate by the 1989 thriller Fatal Charm, in which he convincingly played a Ted Bundy-like killer (to his credit, Atkins was game--he even did a boy/boy kiss in a prison sequence), but the film's production company, MCEG, went under and the finished movie disappeared except for a fleeting Showtime airing over two years later. Bad break, that, for these days the one-time Boy Beefcake of Hollywood is out paying the rent by appearing in low-budget films even we've never heard of.


Brian Hirsch is at work on a book about the films of writer/director Ranald MacDougall.