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Fear and Self-Loathing in Hollywood

The most stultifying and damaging fear infecting Hollywood is, of course, the fear of failure, because it keeps you from taking risks -- and risk is an essential element of creativity and art.
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This column originally appeared in Variety.

Hollywood is the ultimate fear-driven town. From executives afraid of greenlighting the next "Heaven's Gate" or passing on the next "Borat" to actors afraid of growing old (or being replaced by computer-generated performers) to agents afraid of being kicked to the curb by their superstar clients to sitcom writers afraid reality TV will eat their paychecks to Hollywood wives afraid of being replaced by new and surgically improved trophy models to publicists afraid of the next shoe dropping (Sex tape stolen? Paparazzi punched? Couch jumped on? Drunken diatribe posted on the Internet?) to theater owners afraid audiences will soon tire of sticky floors and $10 popcorn to starlets afraid they got their lips done too big ... yes, even to billionaire moguls afraid their stock price may dip. Even more than greed, ambition and a lust for fame, fear is what truly fuels the inhabitants of the mythical 30-mile zone.

Courage, my compatriot Socrates said, is the knowledge of what is not to be feared. But far too often in Hollywood, people are afraid of their own shadows -- which can be a real career-killer. After all, it's next to impossible to be truly creative when you are afraid of shadows (unless you are a nubile teen cast in a slasher flick, in which case you have a very good reason to fear those dark nooks and crannies).

The most stultifying and damaging fear infecting Hollywood is, of course, the fear of failure, because it keeps you from taking risks -- and risk is an essential element of creativity and art. Failure is part and parcel of any creative life. It's not the opposite of success; it's an integral part of success. Just ask yourself, how many people do you know who've really succeeded who didn't fail -- often multiple times -- along the way? In the end, you have to love that which you long to create more than you abhor the fear of failure and criticism. Fearlessness is like a muscle: The more you exercise it, the stronger it gets.

Notions of status and hierarchy -- of climbing the Hollywood food chain (and I mean this metaphorically as well as literally -- as the best table at Nobu, Spago or Cut will demonstrate) -- are deeply ingrained in the Hollywood psyche. But, of course, keeping up with the Joneses, if not the Spielbergs, is an affliction that has plagued humans since we first appeared on the planet. I can't say for sure, but it wouldn't surprise me if Adam used that whole apple-eating incident as a weapon against Eve to claim superior status and decisionmaking power in their new digs. No word on if the snake asked for 10% of the deal.

Human beings -- including Hollywood agents -- are naturally social creatures, and trying to determine our place in the social hierarchy is a hard-wired instinct. The question is, how much of that determination do we out-source to others? And what is the connection between what we perceive our status to be and our own happiness? And can seeing our name up in lights or our face in a double-truck For Your Consideration ad assuage much more elemental fears?

Playing the pecking-order game (and obsessing when your power ranking in the Vanity Fair New Establishment list drops a notch or two) always comes with a heaping side order of fear and self-loathing. Implicit in this game of showing those "below" us that we're better because we've got a bigger house, a better trailer, a hotter spouse, a better art collection -- or get first-dollar gross -- is an acceptance that those "above" us are better because they, in turn, have more than we have. This creates a repulsive fear and envy sandwich -- squishing us between the envy coming from those below us and our fear and envy of those above us.

As you may have noticed, for a town built on idiosyncratic vision and nonconformity, Hollywood is a shining example of the herd mentality at work. (Don't believe me? Try getting a new Prius in less than six months) This, too, is caused by fear -- the fear that our instincts and abilities and worth just aren't valuable enough. To prevent others from shutting us down, we do it for them. Trapped by our own fears, we then pretend we're incapable of having what we want, forever waiting for others to give us permission to start living -- or at least start filming our next movie. Pretty soon, we start believing this is the only way.

The most common response to this crisis of self is conformity. As Erich Fromm (working off a first draft by Jung and Freud) put it: "The individual ceases to be himself, he adopts entirely the kind of personality offered to him by cultural patterns; and he therefore becomes exactly as all others are and as they expect him to be."

This explains all those folks rushing to their plastic surgeons asking for Angelina Jolie's eyes, Brad Pitt's jaw, Penelope Cruz's cleavage and Oprah Winfrey's bank account. The net result? Smiles on the faces of psychotherapists (and drug dealers) all across the Westside of Los Angeles.

If Hollywood had a personalized license plate, it would read "SCRD2DTH."