Any second now, something shocking will happen. A star will say something racist. A starlet will enter or exit rehab — or jail. A beautiful person will cheat on another beautiful person. Some heartthrob will be caught with a call boy. An over-the-hill actor will be videotaped drunk. An offending body part will be flashed. Arrests will happen. Careers will be destroyed or resurrected. Outrage will be expressed.
Every generation believes it is living in the Age of Scandal. There was the Renaissance. The Reformation. The Roaring ’20s. Don’t even get us started on ancient Rome — Brangelina can’t hold a candle to Antony and Cleopatra. And Greek mythology reads like the dishiest blog ever. (Hera never could keep Zeus satisfied. And Narcissus? Totally gay.) So while we can’t claim to be living in the first, or most epic, scandal era ever, there’s zero doubt that our 21st-century media have flung us into the fastest, most relentless period of public shaming in human history. ”In Los Angeles, we’ve created 24/7 paparazzi packs,” says Ross Johnson, a crisis consultant. ”They roam the streets like wild dogs. And anyone who’s recognizable can be under attack at any moment.” Racks of celebrity tabloids, hundreds of gossip blogs, affordable handheld video, and an entire nation of camera phones have created a climate of constant surveillance and a culture of insta-infamy. ”In the old days, a scandal could be suppressed by a studio lawyer and never reach critical mass,” says one studio exec, who, like others, insisted on anonymity. ”Now, if there’s even an audience of one to something a celebrity says or does, it can become a scandal in a nanosecond.” One top-flight publicist couldn’t agree more: ”I think this Internet crap is killing the business.”
In this environment, everything from a minor traffic violation to an extramarital affair ricochets around the blogosphere with equal ”OMG!” breathlessness. Four young women — Paris, Lindsay, Britney, and Nicole — have led the charge, racking up more scandals in 2007 than Liza Minnelli has over her lifetime. (And Minnelli’s résuméncludes at least one gay husband, a drug habit, and two hip replacements.) ”We seem to have entered the age of the bad girl,” says one longtime executive. ”In the ’70s we had the bad boys — guys like Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty — and an occasional black-widow type, but this is something new. I don’t know if these girls are trying to outdo each other or what.”
Regardless, it’s seriously unwise career planning. Scandal may make you famous, but it doesn’t make you bankable. Something as benign as, say, jumping on Oprah’s couch can have serious business implications. Less than a year after Tom Cruise hopped up on that sofa — and later took issue with Brooke Shields’ treatment for postpartum depression and lectured Matt Lauer about psychiatry — Mission: Impossible III opened at $10 million below its predecessor. Coincidence or consequence? Didn’t matter. Viacom head Sumner Redstone publicly blamed Cruise for the film’s subpar performance and severed the star’s relationship with Paramount. When Meg Ryan split with husband Dennis Quaid after a fling with Russell Crowe, her movie with Crowe, Proof of Life, opened to her lowest gross in five years. She hasn’t had a hit since. (And speaking of Crowe, that phone-throwing incident didn’t help the box office of Cinderella Man.) Don Imus and Isaiah Washington both lost their jobs for saying something stupid. The Dixie Chicks initially lost album sales for saying something smart. And did A Mighty Heart open at an anemic $3.9 million because of its tragic subject matter, or because people blame star Angelina Jolie for the end of Brad Pitt’s marriage? Almost certainly the former, but who’s to say for sure?
What is certain is that scandal played at least some part in every one of these cases and cost the people and companies involved millions of dollars. Lindsay Lohan seems done for — for now — not because of her frequent visits to rehab, but because all that media attention didn’t attract audiences to her films; it repelled them. Her DUI arrest derailed the marketing campaign for I Know Who Killed Me, and the industry took notice. ”From that moment on, all the publicity around the film shifted,” says a movie marketing exec. ”The press just wanted to write about how her career was over. Her behavior hurt that campaign.” Lohan’s biggest successes were Freaky Friday and Mean Girls, both of which predate her debut as a blogarazzi icon. Now, in articles like this one, her name is used in the same sentence as Paris Hilton’s, whom one handler calls a ”celebritard.” In any case, the more ”famous” Lohan has become, the worse her movies have done.
That axiom has been proven again and again. The Bennifer romance/breakup generated massive profits for the tabloids and lost millions for Sony when the couple’s film Gigli tanked. ”If you’re in the middle of a movie and something like that happens, you have to finish the film,” says one marketing exec. ”But if you’re about to cast a movie, you really look at what the cost-benefit analysis is.” Fallout isn’t limited to actors, of course. Britney has traded music fame for meltdown infamy — and her CD sales have been riding a down escalator for years.
So how does the entertainment industry cover its assets in this age of shock and gall? Well, it doesn’t take pointless risks by investing in crisis-prone talent, that’s for sure. In a rare case of meritocracy, the stars who keep their private lives calm and quiet, á la Tom Hanks, are getting the best roles these days — and knocking them out of the park. Will Smith, Matt Damon, and Jodie Foster are all setting career-record opening weekends and global box office totals, and they don’t have a single tabloid cover among them. The next generation of stars is clearly getting the memo. ”If you know too much about an actor, it limits how you’ll accept her on screen,” says a top studio exec. ”I mean, how could I watch Lindsay Lohan play a nun now?” The young Transformers star Shia LaBeouf understands all of the above. He says he presents a false, ”interestingly vague” persona to the media and stays far away from the club scene. ”My personality is not for sale,” he told EW in June. ”If my personality gets famous, how do I differ it on screen? Which one becomes the performance?”
Lucky for the blogarazzi, LaBeouf’s still in the minority. And wherever there’s celebrity, power, youth, and beauty, scandal and TMZ.com are sure to follow. All this public flogging may be hurting the film and television business, but it has created a separate media empire of its own. Scandal, like sex, sells. And it’s reshaping our culture at the speed of DSL. Of course, all that flash and noise can make it difficult to distinguish serious scandal from harmless gossip, so EW decided to investigate which 25 scandals of the past 25 years have had the biggest impact on the business and the celebrities involved. (If you’re curious to see which catastrophes almost made the cut, you’ll find Nos. 26 through 50 here.) Some stars had so many scandals — e.g., Michael Jackson, Madonna, Lohan — that we were faced with option paralysis. And just in case you think nothing juicy happened before 1982, we’ve included a scandal Hall of Fame — trust us, Winona Ryder’s got nothing on Fatty Arbuckle. For fun, there’s even a map showing where in Los Angeles certain infamous events took place. (Take a tour the next time you’re in town!) This is not to say that we are, you know, reveling in celebrity pain. We care. As do the industry executives who have to deal with these celebrity dramas. ”After 20 years in this business, I’ve never met a movie star who wasn’t trouble without a scandal,” says one veteran exec. ”They’re all pains in the ass because they’re scared s–less of losing their youth, appeal, and power. However, there are some scenarios I wouldn’t wish on an enemy.” Let the nightmares begin.