December turned out to be the cruelest month for Hollywood's poster boys for bad behavior. In a sobering one-two-three punch, Robert Downey Jr., 32, and Christian Slater, 28, were sentenced to jail on heroin and cocaine charges, and Chris Farley, 33, was found dead after a four-day alcohol and drug binge.
Many hope Farley's death, coming on the heels of the surprise jailing of Downey and Slater, will be a wake-up call for an industry that has grown too tolerant of substance abuse. ''It will serve as an alarm to some,'' says actor Esai Morales, 35, who counts Downey among his friends and who hung out with Farley on several occasions, ''and not to others. Hollywood is a state of mind. A lot of people like Farley get sucked up in that and can't handle it. The suits know that but go ahead and hire them anyway.'' An employee at one of the most powerful agencies in town is also eager to see a change. ''They don't give a s--- if an actor is using drugs,'' he says. ''The agency's perspective is, as long as you don't go to jail, who cares?''
Downey, Slater, and Farley, as well as Charlie Sheen (also famous for his outlandish behavior) have enjoyed thriving film careers despite their drug or legal troubles. And in Downey's case, the perspective has been, even if you do go to jail, who cares? He made four movies almost back-to-back after leaving court-appointed lockdown rehab in January 1997. And in interviews before Farley's death but after the Slater/Downey sentencings, directors, producers, and agents said they turn a blind eye to drug use among stars. Says Shane Stanley, 26, who cowrote No Code of Conduct with Sheen, ''Just because Robert has a little problem with heroin or Christian did a little blow doesn't mean you should write them off.'' Adds director Robert Altman, who hired Downey for the upcoming Gingerbread Man: ''It's not my position to tell anyone what to do. It's none of my business.... Samuel Taylor Coleridge was a drug addict all his life.''
And he would feel very much at home in Hollywood today, where the reborn just-say-yes attitude seems to be spawning a club scene to match. In recent months, the Viper Room, the Sunset Strip symbol of heroin use in the entertainment industry ever since River Phoenix died outside its doors, has been joined by a new group of hip Sunset Strip nightspotsall very reminiscent of the go-go '80s. Even the drug of choice among partygoers at these more luxe nightclubs is retro: Coke is it.
Talk to narcotics investigators with the L.A. Police Department and Sheriff's Department and they'll say cocaine never completely went away after its late 1970s-early '80s heydayit only moved underground. Yet they report a slight increase in cocaine busts (meanwhile, the Coast Guard, aided by other law-enforcement agencies, seized a record 103,617 pounds of cocaine in the year ending Sept. 30more than triple the total from the previous 12 months). Industry people agree that, after several years of heroin chic, cocaine has indeed resurfaced. ''I've done movies where people did coke [because] there was so much pressure to get it done that there was no time to rest,'' says an indie-film actor who has also witnessed use among a few high-powered movie agents. ''They were just using [it] like caffeine.''