Lindsay Lohan: The Next River Phoenix? Or The Next Judy Garland?

In the days following Lindsay Lohan's Memorial Day hat trick -- the car crash, the arrest, the by-now-infamous passenger seat pass-out captured by paparazzi for posterity -- celebrity-ologists rushed to place the 20-year-old's bad behavior in proper context.

Sharon Waxman, a (former?) Hollywood beat reporter for The New York Times, situated Lohan at the end of a starlet line reaching past Britney Spears to Marilyn Monroe. In all three cases, according to Waxman, the "spectacle of a young woman's self-destruction seemed to demand expressions of sympathy along with the requisite scorn." That sympathy wasn't on display at the celeb blogs -- The Superficial, for instance, joked that the police who arrested Lohan for the DUI had the constitutional right to "shoot her in the head" -- and even professional finger-wagger-to-the-stars Dr. Drew Pinsky saw no need to sugar coat Lindsay's predicament. When asked on MSNBC last week to estimate Lohan's chances of successfully making it through her second stay in rehab, Pinsky cited Lindsay's family history of addiction and said that, statistically speaking, a terminal cancer patient would have a better chance of long-term survival.

Everywhere I go, people are talking about whether or not Lindsay will be the first of her generation of stars to die, and in some ways it feels as though that's exactly what we all want. When stars get to this point, teetering on the brink of total self-destruction, it's a lot easier for us as spectators to see them die young, beautiful, with some kind of potential unfulfilled, than to watch them go on and get old and ugly and disappoint us. River Phoenix is only River Phoenix because he's dead; if he hadn't overdosed in front of the Viper Room, at best he'd be Robert Downey Jr. At worst, he still would have died, but only after failing to make good on the promise as an actor -- and at that point, nobody would have cared about an older, far less good-looking corpse. With female stars -- particularly those who have yet to prove themselves as unequivocally talented -- the public's need for relief is even more intense. With nothing to offer the world beyond the spectacle of the slow decline of her waxwork-perfect approximation of blonde beauty, Anna Nicole Smith died at exactly the right point in her career (of course, ever the contrarian, Camille Paglia declared Smith's death a great cultural loss).

Unlike Waxman, I don't see Lindsay as a Marilyn Monroe figure -- I see her falling squarely in line with the legacy of Judy Garland. Lindsay and Judy have an awful lot in common. Both were child stars, raised by stage mothers far more interested in their daughter's fame than in their actual well-being. Judy's life-long drug addiction began when her mother (in cahoots with Louis B. Meyer) put her on uppers to lose weight; if Lindsay's mom isn't actually doing drugs with her daughter, she's at the very least accompanying Lindsay to clubs and turning a blind eye on her daughter's substance abuse. Lindsay's bad behavior (and thus, tabloid reign) seemed to stem from her desire to rebel against her Disney image; Judy, sick of being treated like a child three years after strapping down her breasts to play Dorothy at age 17, married a bandleader to piss off MGM. Judy's drug use finally led to chronic lateness and absenteeism -- when that letter from the producer of Georgia Rule leaked, all I could think of was Garland's famous suspension at MGM in the late 40s, which inevitably led to the end of her career in movies. The drugs that kept her slim and energetic in musicals as a teen and 20-something had taken their toll by her 30s, and through a combination of her declining looks and her inability to show up on time, she became virtually unemployable. She lived out the last decade of her life broke, semi-homeless, and all but forgotten by the producers who made millions off of her as a teenager.

The typical endnote to these "Wither Star X?" stories is always, "She better shape up, or all that talent will go to waste!" In terms of her own personal vanity, the worst thing that could possibly happen to Lindsay Lohan would be for her to end up like Judy Garland. But I think the jury's still out as to whether or not Lindsay has anything to offer us as a culture beyond Terry Richardson shoots and salacious headlines. I do know one thing: I enjoyed Lohan's work in Mean Girls and A Prairie Home Companion, but if she's going to be stuck making films like Georgia Rule and Just My Luck for the rest of the career, she's probably better off dead.