Man-Babies Desperately Seeking Attention: Sean Penn and Jim Carrey

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The artworks of Sean Penn, Shia LaBeouf, and Jim Carrey, respectively

We’ve seen it before. A well-known actor or actress who was at the top of the celebrity pyramid starts to get older. They’re no longer the teenage phenom or cute, spunky girl. The spotlight moves on to fresher, hotter, younger talent. And the former star transforms into the saddest stereotype in Hollywood. Their vanity becomes so starved for attention, they’ll do anything to remain in the public eye. Several generations ago that meant guest appearances on The Love Boat or Fantasy Island. More recently, waning celebrities live as parodies of their former fame on shows like Dancing with the Stars and Celebrity Apprentice.

Hollywood has a long history of has-beens hanging on to stardom. Films like Sunset Boulevard explore the psychological torture that fading stars endured. Strangely, while it’s a cliche that women are worried about losing the attention their youth and beauty brings, it’s the male stars who act-out with the most desperation. Which brings us to Sean Penn and Jim Carrey.

Sean Penn craves to be seen as a serious literary writer. He has released a novel so bad that the title alone says the author is an idiot: Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff: A Novel. Penn can’t even string eight words together for the title. The only words that matter to him on the cover are his name: Sean Penn. Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff is a dim-witted follow up to Penn’s previous foray into serious writing. In 2017, he pretended to be a journalist for Rolling Stone. In interviewing the Mexican drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, Penn inadvertently outed El Chapo’s secret hideaway location. In an Austin Powers’ movie, this journalistic no-no would be played for laughs. In the real world, it had consequences. Penn’s biggest mistake wasn’t getting El Chapo arrested, though. No, it was making the Rolling Stone story mostly about himself. Can anybody top Penn’s ego and artistic pretensions? Maybe Jim Carrey can.

Comedian Jim Carrey says he is an artist now. We are to believe he’s a serious artist because he paints Jesus, Donald Trump, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and Hitler. Not with any skill. His style is like a child vomiting on a giant canvas after eating a box of Crayola Crayons. To make sure we take him seriously, Jim produced a six minute video telling us he is a serious artist. Further proof that Carrey is a serious artist is his ploy of inviting couples to pay $10,000 to attend his art opening. Whoever said you can’t put a price on pretentiousness never attended a Jim Carrey art opening. The cover charge included the purchase of one of Carrey’s goofy artworks. $10,000 also bought you cocktails, hors-d’oeuvres, cheese, live entertainment, and last but not least, the chance to touch Jim Carrey in person. The ultimate vanity play.

Penn and Carrey both want to be taken seriously in their new creative endeavors. But neither take their new creative work seriously. Neither have learned the craftsmanship of the dedicated novelist or the fine painter. Both are driven by ego gratification alone. If they were honest about being respected they wouldn’t trade on their former celebrity when selling their artistic efforts. As a contrast, J.K. Rowling has released novels under a pseudonym as a way of testing her skills as a writer. Margaret Keane of big-eyed painting fame similarly sold paintings under an anonymous name. But Penn and Carrey are fearful little men, narcissistic cowards so vain they would rather be slammed critically than ignored.

It’s no coincidence that both Penn and Carrey have troubled pasts. We all remember the ‘odd boy’ back in elementary school who was a shrieking, emotional bedwetter in constant need of mommy’s attention. Well, sometimes that kid grows up to be a celebrity like Penn or Carrey. In Penn’s case, allegations of domestic abuse haunt him, including beating Madonna with a baseball bat; Carrey, meanwhile, has been accused of introducing his girlfriend to cocaine, prostitutes, several STDs, and driving her to suicide. Is it fair to tie these alleged transgressions to their current art projects? Only in that they show a pattern. These are men who demand to be at the center of attention and feel emasculated when they’re not. Even a domestic abuse lawsuit is ripe territory for media attention and a starring role in a ‘real’ courtroom drama.

Then there’s Shia LaBeouf. Somehow, Shia has transformed himself into that rarest bird, a legitimate performance artist, someone the art world is forced to take seriously. The video Rob Cantor directed about Shia LaBeouf starring the Gay Men’s Choir of Los Angeles shows that LaBeouf is not only in on the joke about his fame and celebrity, but that he’s also comfortable enough in his own masculinity he can handle being mocked. Often times, he is the one doing the mocking. This is exactly what the best performance artists exploring conceptual art aim to do: deconstruct art with art itself. Shia explores the stupidness of celebrity via his own stupidness, a perfect fit.

In February, 2014 LaBeouf took over an empty art gallery on the corner of Beverly Boulevard and Fuller Avenue in Los Angeles. He sat in there with a brown paper bag over his head and ‘I AM NOT FAMOUS ANYMORE’ scrawled across the front in Sharpie. As part of this art project and/or publicity stunt, fans, gawkers, and passerby could go in to look at him. That’s what I planned on doing. Except when I arrived at the gallery, a line stretched around the block, all the way down Fuller. I asked the girl at the head of the line how long she had been waiting to get in. “Three hours,” she said. “You’re a lot younger than I am,” I told her. “I have a lot less time to live.” Then I turned around and left.

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Eric Coyote outside Shia LaBeouf’s #IAMSORRY performance art show with the fan who waited three hours to see him. At least she was smart enough to bring reading material.

Eric Coyote earned his Master of Arts degree in critical theory from the University of Southern California. He writes about movies, Hollywood, and culture.

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