For one brilliant, flickering moment, she was poised to become a star. By the age of 17, Lindsay Lohan had played lead roles in four major films, two of them significant hits. In 2004, her first album had gone platinum. Mean Girls had opened at $24 million and had transported her from cute kid to budding sex symbol and style icon. Hollywood wanted to mold her into the next Julia Roberts. By last week, at the age of 21, she had blown it all away. ''She had the world at her feet,'' says the head of a major studio. ''And right now, she'd have to pay a studio to get herself into a movie.''
On July 24, just 11 days after leaving rehab, Lohan was arrested for cocaine possession and suspicion of drunk driving. Whether she does time or not, she's built her own prison in Hollywood. Her latest film, I Know Who Killed Me, premiered last week to an abysmal $3.5 million. ''The rate at which she has fallen, and gotten back up, and fallen again, does not inspire confidence,'' says one producer. ''It's always challenging for a young actor to mature into an adult star. It takes great planning, sophistication, and judgment. She hasn't shown any of those things.'' Lohan has not had a hit since Mean Girls, and her grosses have been declining. She hasn't opened a movie above $10 million since 2005's Herbie: Fully Loaded. Of the producers and high-ranking execs who spoke to Entertainment Weekly some of whom have worked with Lohan, and most of whom insisted on anonymity so they could speak frankly almost none would hire her now. ''Her career was over long before she had these troubles,'' says the studio head. ''The media treat her like she's Will Smith or Tom Cruise, like she's some big star, but she simply isn't.''
If Lohan wanted to blame somebody other than herself, she wouldn't have to look far. There's her mother, who seems to want to be a best friend rather than a parent. There's her ex-con father. There's the L.A. bar scene that serves underage stars and Hollywood's compulsion to turn child actors into products, plus a frenzied 21st-century media culture that has made Lohan and other celebs into exotic prey in flashbulb cages. ''It's ridiculous how different things are than they were 10 years ago,'' says Robert Downey Jr., who declined to speak about Lohan specifically, but waged his own public battle with addiction. ''Nowadays, the leap from instant stardom to instant bad boy or girl is so quick. It's a real challenge to reconcile your own process of becoming an adult with the temptation of celebrity.''
Lohan's young, but to say she's a victim of the blogarazzi misses the point. She was, after all, created by that very same culture. And she didn't exactly object. Without all the tabloid covers and red carpets and cell-phone photos and mug shots, Lohan would not be a household name; she would simply be a talented ingenue with a substance-abuse problem, a messed-up family, and a mediocre box office record. Harsh? Maybe so, but that's the cold calculus of Hollywood. ''Her troubles are what made her famous,'' says one studio exec. ''Her films don't open. She's a pain to work with. I think she's done.'' Others go so far as to worry that career death may be the least of Lohan's concerns. Says another exec: ''I think she has to stay alive.''