By Owen Gleiberman
Updated February 16, 2010 at 06:28 PM EST

Is there a point at which a celebrity’s off-screen behavior is repellent enough to sour you to his on-screen art? For anyone, say, who suddenly finds him or herself a lot less eager to seek out a new film by Roman Polanski, the answer is an obvious, and unqualified, yes. For others, and that might include those who (like me) have a high threshold of voyeuristic fascination, the answer is a lot more complicated. It may be closer to, “No. When a Hollywood star, or director, acts badly in life, it may bring out the closet moralist in us, but it may also, in some ways, reinforce what we found so arresting about that person as an artist or star in the first place.” In other words, morality and art are a combustible combination. They don’t always mix well.

I thought of this recently, since over the past few weeks I’ve been enjoying the hell out of watching Tom Sizemore on Celebrity Rehab — if “enjoy” is the right word to apply to the sight of a greasy-coiffed, homeless, three-days-past-sleep, perpetually crooked-grinned celebrity crystal meth head as he lies, cajoles, and confesses his way through recovery. The fascination, of course, is almost entirely voyeuristic, as Sizemore and his former lover, Heidi Fleiss (what an inspired stroke of showbiz — I mean, compassionate act of therapy — it was to toss these two into the same rehabilitation group), appear to be competing for the title of “Former Tabloid Icon Who Now Most Resembles Human Roadkill.” I’m tempted to say that the winner is Fleiss by a (fixed) nose. Actually, though, it’s Sizemore, who skulks through Celebrity Rehab like the king of the losers, his rumpled sleaziness so fugly-captivating that he might almost be playing…a Tom Sizemore character.

Because here’s the thing: After all the drug abuse, the charges of domestic violence, and everything else that made him a pariah in Hollywood, Tom Sizemore was, and is, a gifted actor. He was powerful in Saving Private Ryan (1998), but he also capitalized on his attraction to the dark side in more than one role. His single greatest performance, to my mind, is as the obsessive, repulsively cunning Detective Jack Scagnetti in Natural Born Killers (1994). You’d better believe that Oliver Stone knew exactly what he was doing when he cast Sizemore as a homicide cop so hooked on corruption that he made the film’s title sociopaths look upstanding by comparison.

Sizemore’s whole tawdry career, from playing bad guys to being a bad guy to exploiting his bad-guy-ness on Celebrity Rehab to — some day, just maybe, weirder things have happened, etc. — working his way toward some twisted form of rehabilitation in Hollywood illustrates that in the age of round-the-clock reality sensationalism, separating someone’s work as an artist from what he or she does off-screen may be trickier to do right now than it has ever been before.

What I want to know is, how much do you now make that separation? Or even try to? It’s obviously no coincidence that Mel Gibson, following his infamous drunken anti-Semitic tabloid blow-up, took several years off from starring in a movie. He needed the time to re-bolster his image. When he returned to the screen, last month, in the political revenge thriller Edge of Darkness (after a total of eight years’ hiatus from leading roles), I sensed, looking at the movie’s passable yet rather underwhelming box-office performance, that he may well have been “forgiven” by the media, but not necessarily by certain segments of the movie-going public. Had seeing a Mel Gibson movie turned into a line that some people wouldn’t cross? At the very least, maybe they’d be a bit slower to go there than before. And what about Russell Crowe, an actor who, like Gibson, got caught blowing his top in an indefensible manner off-screen, but whose personality on-screen almost always depends on his getting angry as a form of lone-wolf-against-the-system virtue? For these righteous mad men, there may be the thinnest of lines between looking angry, looking like a movie star, and looking fatally out of touch.

The line probably isn’t as thin in the case of Roman Polanski. The last time I blogged on this man, just after his arrest in Switzerland this past fall, I recommended that anyone interested in the whole sordid Polanski affair watch the terrific documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired (2008), which chronicled legal intricacies of what happened 30 years ago that have, in the last two months, proved that they may indeed be potentially decisive in the case’s outcome. For recommending that film (which I still passionately do), I was accused by more than one message-board poster of aiding and abetting a criminal. Make no mistake: The hatred of Roman Polanski is profound. But now, right in the thick of his mess, he has a movie coming out: The Ghost Writer (it opens this Friday), a tale of British political corruption starring Ewan McGregor as a former prime minister’s ghost-writer-turned-muckraker.

What I want to know is: Who out there actively wants to see it? Who, if anyone, refuses to see it because it was made by Roman Polanski? And is there anyone who might have been drawn to this movie just a few years ago but now feels, given the ugly immediacy of the Polanski affair, that they’re a little more tempted to let it fall by the wayside? In the end, how much does a celebrity’s off-screen behavior influence whether you’ll seek out what he does on-screen?

The Ghost Writer

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 128 minutes
  • Roman Polanski