Nine Moments When Great Showbiz Careers Started Going Downhill

Elvis Presley joins the Army, 1958

I'm going to dispense with a lengthy opening paragraph, as the title and entries speak for themselves.

  1. George Lucas divorces, 1983. For many entries in this list, the "moment" when things went south was preceded by a number of unfortunate events. Lucas's troubles began in 1980, when he split with his Star Wars/Empire Strikes Back producer Gary Kurtz. (As Kurtz tells it, that's when Lucas started caring more about toy profits than about storytelling.) But Lucas's divorce from his wife – and longtime editor – Marcia symbolizes the true end of his golden age. Without her input, Lucas floundered with a string of flops in the '80s and '90s and finally fell back on his now-tired Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises. Sure, he wound up making mountains of money in the process, but with little integrity.
  2. Michael Jackson's hair catches on fire, 1984. As my wife once quipped, a freak accident during the filming of a Pepsi commercial in January '84 "burned up everything good" in Jackson. It's likely that the plastic surgery and painkillers ministered to MJ after the fire begot the following 25 years of bad habits that led to his death. It also turned him into tabloid fodder. While there are fans of his 1987 album Bad and even some of his later songs, I'd argue that his greatness died in the conflagration.
  3. Walt Disney's animators go on strike, 1941. Walt Disney was one of the 1930s' most respected filmmakers. But after peaking with the commercial and artistic success of 1937's Snow White, he suffered setbacks. His studio was hemorrhaging money because the war in Europe had killed his foreign box office. He was devastated by his mother's death from gas inhalation in the home he'd built for her. He lost interest in his features after Fantasia. But it was his animators' demands for more pay which changed Disney forever. As the patriarch of his studio, he felt personally betrayed by the strike. Even though a settlement was reached, Disney distanced himself from his staff, became a staunch anti-unionist, and turned to television and theme parks. His studio would never again do anything as groundbreaking as Fantasia.
  4. Prince changes his name to a symbol, 1993. Prince Rogers Nelson ruled over the '80s pop scene. But the business side of entertainment came to consume him, and a feud with his record label Warner Bros. led him to adopt an unpronounceable "love symbol" as his moniker, claiming that while WB "owned" Prince the name, they didn't own Prince the man. While the rest of us tittered at his ill-advised rebellion, the artist then-formerly known as Prince churned out a series of weak albums in order to fulfill his contractual obligations. When he was finally "emancipated" from WB, he became Prince again, but the world had moved on. Although he remains a top live performer, his new music sells only fitfully.
  5. Alfred Hitchcock falls in love with Tippi Hedren, 1962. The Master of Suspense was riding a career high: Psycho was his most profitable movie of all time; critics were finally embracing him as an artist; he could do anything he wanted. Then he saw a TV commercial starring the unknown Hedren. Attraction turned into obsession, and Hitchcock gambled big on the arguably untalented neophyte by making her headline both The Birds (a hit) and Marnie (a bomb). His romantic advances finally and permanently spurned by Hedren, Hitch became a broken man. His remaining films – sporadically released and halfheartedly made (save for the vicious Frenzy) – reflect this.
  6. Eddie Murphy directs "Harlem Nights", 1989. Almost overnight, Saturday Night Live's Murphy had become one of America's top movie stars. As a result, his ego was free to run rampant. Although his career survived the obligatory "serious" music album ("Party All the Time", anyone?), it was walloped by his much-reviled directorial debut, Harlem Nights. Nobody cared for Eddie the hyphenate (that same year he also produced the failed sitcom What's Alan Watching?, starring a young Corin Nemec), and after this stumble, Murphy lost his edge; today he's known for an endless array of idiotic comedies.
  7. Meg Ryan sleeps with Russell Crowe, 2000. The perky blonde actress was America's Sweetheart, her marriage to Dennis Quaid held up as a paragon of Hollywood romance. Although Ryan admitted years later that Quaid had been unfaithful to her for a long time, it was her own dalliance with the skeezy Russell Crowe on the set of Proof of Life that soured her millions of (mostly middle-aged female) fans. Shortly thereafter, it was evident that Ryan had received botched plastic surgery, which ruined her girl-next-door looks. Had she left her face alone, her career might have rebounded. But in the decade since her fling with Crowe, the former A-lister has been a straight-to-video struggler.
  8. Elvis Presley joins the Army, 1958. It's harsh to suggest that Elvis's golden period was really only five years long... but what a phenomenal five years! From his first recordings at Sun Studio to international fame and fortune, Elvis couldn't be beat. Even his early movies (especially King Creole) were good. Then he went into the Army for two years. It's said that Presley privately worried that his military service would kill his career. It didn't, but by yanking him out of the limelight, it allowed other rockers to fill the void. The death of his mother in 1958 also delivered a crushing blow. In the end, though the King would have a few more hits after he was discharged, he was not made for the 1960s: a long absence from live performing and a string of stale movies turned him into an anachronism. It's said that his amphetamine addiction began while he was in the Army as well.
  9. Mel Gibson is arrested for DUI, 2006. In the early years of the 21st century, Gibson was at the top of his game. As an actor, he'd had his biggest hit with M. Night Shyamalan's 2002 thriller Signs. As a director, his 2004 Jesus bloodbath The Passion of the Christ proved an enormous success. Then came his 2006 arrest for drunk driving, when he gave the Malibu police a scathing antisemitic rant. The press pummeled him – even more when he soon separated from his wife of 26 years. Gibson's next directorial effort, Apocalypto, wasn't good enough to make audiences forgive his abhorrent behavior. He divorced in 2009 and embarked upon a relationship with a Russian musician that produced a daughter – and several infamous phone calls in which Gibson revealed himself to be a monster. At this point, it's hard to imagine his career ever recovering.