The Big Young Hollywood Hangover

Just a few years ago, young actors were the envy of everyone in town because they were getting the most consistent work. Even though there is a number of stars who'll always find gigs, many now can't. Here are the 10 ways the pups could handle this post-teen craze time.

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Back in the antediluvian era, which is to say toward the end of 1996, young Hollywood actors were struggling, pleading, worrying, preening, strutting and partying the way young actors have always done. Nobody saw it coming. When what seemed like a classically exploitative little horror flick moved into the holiday lineup, nobody said, "Hey, that movie Scream--there's one to watch." Quite the opposite. Brought to the screen by clever hack director Wes Craven, Scream looked to be the kind of small-budget, small-expectation nutball of a movie that might pull in a decent number of adolescents. A trail-blazing, sequel-spewing blockbuster it surely did not resemble, but that's what Scream turned out to be.

Whether because of Scream or simply in synch with its wisdom that the youth of America was eager for its generational experience of being condescended/catered to by Hollywood's B-movie manufacturing mentality (it had been about a decade since the last Hollywood teen craze, the one led by Molly Ringwald and the Brat Pack), a host of other teen entertainments sprang to life. Not only was I Know What You Did Last Summer a hit, but it spawned a sequel and made stars of Jennifer Love Hewitt and Freddie Prinze Jr. The gargantuan teen craze bubble that was beginning to inflate turned into a wildly self-expanding, gaseous phenomenon when the teen-beloved high-end Titanic hit at the end of 1997. Two years later, teens flocked to the Pygmalion story She's All That, making Freddie Prinze Jr. into box-office gold and creating a star of Rachael Leigh Cook. Suddenly, going to the movies became an intensely desirable activity.

Hollywood rushed to fill the pipeline with teenybopper stuff of every stripe, from Varsity Blues to American Pie. A new version of a tried-and-true studio formula went into assembly line mode: gather up some TV-series stars who'll work cheap, put them with fast-moving, non-auteur directors in passably written vehicles, pay more to market the puppies than you did to make the movies, and rake in the profits. On television, the teen craze had already started and proceeded to get bigger in a megatrend best, if not accurately, summarized by the two letters WB. From "Dawson's Creek" to "Roswell"--you know you watched one of these no matter how old you are. With each new series came a new crew of stars to pop into new teen flicks.

In the five years from 1996 to 2001, Young Hollywood experienced a heyday that paralleled the Internet and larger high-tech mania that had know-nothing-but-a-little-programming youngsters earning preposterous salaries at blinder-wearing dot-coms. The win-win link between the two trends was obvious: if everything that's young rules and the young love high-tech, then you sell everything to the young, especially high-tech things, and you use high-tech means to do it. Every segment of the American economy with the faintest claim on the short attention span of the country's teenagers (meaning just about everything but the AARP) went into greed-fueled overdrive, dreaming of the pots of new dispensable "income" teens were said to be in possession of (God knows where they were getting it--from their parents? From working at Yogurt World?). Even if the actors who made up Young Hollywood had never heard of tulipmania or even loosely understood the inevitability of a bear market down the line (and if the heads of major corporations and investment houses didn't, why should Jennifer Love Hewitt?), they would have had no time to worry. There was work to be had, lots of it. It was being doled out about as indiscriminately as Hollywood has ever doled it out. During pilot season, TV executives wanted to hear only about teen ensemble projects. Studio executives couldn't get enough pitches for teen scare flicks, high school romances or vulgarity contests. There hasn't been a time in recent Hollywood history when so many people were hot at the same time. The threatened strike in the year leading up to the summer of 2001 added yet another artificial boost in demand for young flesh as studios loaded up on product in defense against shutdown.

We might have guessed that when a movie in which Kevin Spacey almost does it with teen Mena Suvari wins the Oscar for Best Picture, something has to give. All this had to come to an end, despite Hollywood's powers of positive thinking (and the associated magic of heavy drinking), and it did, well before September 11th changed the tone of the nation. Teens had seen one too many ugly-duckling-chick-gets-popular-jock flicks. For that matter, most of the teens who'd fallen for these types of films weren't teens anymore. By God, they were old enough to join the Army. And after September 11th, it looked like they just might do that.

In Young Hollywood, the last six months have seen a breathtaking shift in mood. A year ago, all but the savviest players in the Young Hollywood scene were still hanging from the chandeliers. Since September 11th, there has been a rash of high anxiety and dismay. Of course, many young actors are still getting terrific roles. Mandy Moore just broke out big time with A Walk to Remember and Natalie Portman is the star of the most anticipated film of 2002, Star Wars: Episode II-- Attack of the Clones. But there's no Scream 4 or even a She's All That 2 on the way this summer.

Predictably enough, Young Hollywood's response to all this involves an intensified dedication to booze (club attendance is sky-high) and drugs (including heroin). It also involves an even more assiduous sucking up to directors and casting directors at all points of social contact. And it encompasses the usual gym, coffee and yoga obsessions that keep the mind from wandering into desperate places.

Seasoned insiders talk about how the world of Young Hollywood has "downsized" just like so many other areas of the economy, and speak about the town's perennially high "attrition rate." But to make the argument that the movie industry is just like other industries is to admit ultimate defeat-- Hollywood didn't get invented to be like other industries. The place isn't cut out to be a land of quiet desperation, a glammed-up rust belt.

Obviously, if wholesale depression is to be held at bay, some facile philosophizing is called for. And since the population of Young Hollywood watches itself more obsessively than any other population on earth, it makes sense to contemplate various Young Hollywood careers for lessons large and small in how or how not to approach life as a young actor in Hollywood these days. The bits of advice presented below are all drawn from careers that are far from over and that therefore offer solace to young performers inclined to think that The Big Young Hollywood Hangover might be fatal.

1. Pay Homage to the Patron Saint of Teen Boom Vets. Surely you've surfed onto a cable channel and been transfixed by the still baby-faced Johnny Depp making his blank way through an episode of the one-time megahit series "21 Jump Street"? Not many people, maybe not even Depp himself, could have imagined that the youngster of those days, during which he starred in Scream predecessor A Nightmare on Elm Street, would become the respected, if inscrutable, actor whose resume includes Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow and Chocolat. Hollywood insiders couldn't understand what rising A-list teen actress Winona Ryder was thinking when she fell for Johnny Depp way back--that's how completely he was dismissed at the time. He was part of a teen craze and he didn't look to do much better than most parts of TV teen crazes--another series, maybe, then a long decline like that of the recently deceased Troy Donahue. Depp not only defied that fate, he's defied any recognizable fate, which is why he's worshipped by Young Hollywood today for his ineffable cool and for the talent he took extremely personal, rather exotic custody of. If as unlikely a prospect as Johnny Depp went from teen idol to bohemian prince to beloved expatriate artist, who's to say that one of the boys from this latest teen craze can't transform himself in a similarly unpredictable manner? Any who seek to do so, though, had better think about the big-money stardom Depp steered stubbornly clear of.

2. Remember That Life Is Usually Long and Careers Can Be Too. Many teens out there first caught sight of Kirsten Dunst in one of her several TV movies or in the recent film Bring It On, and saw in her what can be seen in several of her peers--solid professionalism. The rest of us remember her eerily great performance opposite Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt in the weird classic Interview With the Vampire, and realize that at an extremely young age, she possessed a considerable gift that had more odds against it than the average Young Hollywood performer knows about. When you do a strange, demanding, high-profile role like that at age 11, what do you do for the next decade or so, until you're old enough to play parts that ask something of you and give something back? The answer, of course, is that you just keep working, and you win some, you lose some, you learn and you hopefully find some way to grow up while you're at it, which isn't easy in Hollywood. Dunst has been in excellent, good, indifferent and bad movies. She has strategically managed, however, to telegraph the longevity she intends to have with performances like the ones in The Virgin Suicides and crazy/beautiful. She's one of several actors who predate the bubble and will survive the bubble because they never really became "of" the bubble, a group that includes Christina Ricci, Julia Stiles, Thora Birch, Anna Paquin, Natalie Portman and a number of others.

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