In a screening-room annex of a North Hollywood Holiday Inn, the third annual REEL Recovery Film Festival drew to a close. The mid-October festival's films ranged from a 2010 documentary on the 75th-anniversary Alcoholics Anonymous convention to the 2004 recovering-cokehead indie drama Down to the Bone to 1996's heroin-shooting, toilet-diving Trainspotting (whose program warning about "scenes of explicit drug use" rather understated things). But of all the boozer and druggie classics in the festival, the closing film, from 1957, proved the most revealing.
Scandalous in its time, Lionel Rogosin's groundbreaking On the Bowery showed an image of the alcoholic that would rule the rest of the century: a rumpled, stubbly, bleary-eyed man who rants away his days in dive bars and sleeps it off on trash-blown sidewalks. Far more real than reality TV, the film was cast with drunks from its New York City locale to tell a short, bleak tale, including the darkly handsome lead, Ray Salyer, who rebuffed Hollywood offers and vanished not long after his costar Gorman Hendricks died during a bender following the end of shooting. As the stark, black-and-white end credits faded, the lights came on and one of Rogosin's friends and disciples stood up to give a quick Q&A.
"Lionel was a giant," said the director Robert Downey Sr., a member of the New York independent film scene that included John Cassavetes and Martin Scorsese. "His films were real, but they weren't 'reality.' He saw these people with compassion." Compassion had become a theme during Downey's short visit to L.A., which began two nights earlier at the 25th annual American Cinematheque tribute in Beverly Hills. There, the white-haired veteran of outsider cinema and the Hollywood drug culture joined Jennifer Aniston, Jamie Foxx, Jodie Foster, and others to honor the famous son to whom he gave his first film role at age 5 and his first taste of drugs at 8—prepping one of the most striking recovery arcs in modern culture. As Robert Downey Jr. received the prestigious award (which is presented annually to one person for extraordinary achievement in motion pictures), he made the kind of ninja move typical of his public life these days, using the stage to deliver a headline-grabbing testimonial on behalf of Mel Gibson, who gave the addiction-addled actor a lead role in 1990's Air America when the rest of the industry had blacklisted him, much as it now has Gibson (whose transgressions, to be sure, may not be explained away by his history of substance abuse). "I humbly ask that you join me, unless you are completely without sin—in which case you are in the wrong fucking industry—in forgiving my friend his trespasses, offering him the same clean slate you have me," Downey said.
Hollywood has gone well beyond forgiving Downey, whose fame as an actor was eclipsed for a decade by the notoriety that followed his lurid stumble toward oblivion. His very public struggle for a viable career eventually took him to the summit of his profession and not only destigmatized addiction but blazed a trail for a new wave of real, recovery-made superheroes.
A quick scan of the pop-culture landscape shows a collection of sober, serious operators—Rufus Wainwright, Tobey Maguire, Jason Bateman, Russell Brand, Marc Jacobs, Terry Richardson (best known for his photographs of hard-living luminaries), and the recently resurgent Colin Farrell (who has made being dry "a way of life" after giving up a weekly diet of "20 E's, four grams of coke, six of speed, half an ounce of hash, three bottles of Jack Daniel's, 12 bottles of red wine, 60 pints"). Far from being regarded as pariahs, this been-there, kicked-that creative class has turned recovery into a gateway to society's upper tiers. "The recovering alcoholic is sort of the paradigm of the model citizen," says Anna McCarthy, a New York University associate professor who sits on NYU's Council for Media & Culture and is the author of The Citizen Machine: Governing by Television in 1950s America. "Someone who has come to terms with himself on the inside and the social world around him and so speaks from a position of moral virtue."
Along with moral virtue, sobriety actually bestows social cachet in certain quarters. "In L.A., your sober companion is often seen as some glamorous accessory," says sobriety coach and interventionist Joe Schrank, who worked at Promises, Malibu's famed celeb-train-wreck rehab center, before opening the Core Company in New York City in 2007 and cofounding the sober-lifestyle website TheFix.com last March. The Core Company's beachhead is Loft 107, a sober-living "home" in Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood, where a 7,000-square-foot warehouse has been converted into a loft-plan living space, with a high-end kitchen, a pool table, plush club chairs, sectional sofas, and wall-mounted guitars providing a luxurious layover for well-heeled addicts.
"We have everyone from Wall Street guys to trust-funders to famous actors and actresses to the late-thirties Internet guy who hit it big but is facing divorce," says Core Company executive director Melissa Burton. "We see the Williamsburg hipster and the Waspy kids from Yale, Penn, and Dartmouth, and we show them how to bring sobriety back to their urban lifestyles." In other words, Ivy League partiers, indie-film stars, and dot-com moguls—the once-libertine cultural elite—are now the standard-bearers of a rebranded recovery. "Many of [our clients] are alcoholics maintaining high-powered jobs, surrounded by people who don't want them to give up their drinking because they're so successful," Burton says. "They get through their day running top companies but cannot get off these prescription pills. Or they're a twentysomething enmeshed with their parents and deeply rooted in a philosophy that life is really good. We're able to take a client and say, 'Hey, for you, Bikram yoga works—that's your AA meeting. That spirituality works for you.'"