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Future celebrities aside, the Malibu of Lowe's youth is a strange place, part beach-blanket paradise, part horror movie. Everybody is good-looking and about to be famous, but Et in Arcadia ego: death and trauma lurk around the edges of the frame. People are always dying from a car crash or a surfing accident or a drug overdose or getting shot or being eaten by a great white shark. (This happened.) Lowe evokes this dreamy-nightmary atmosphere rather well: "There was a price to be paid for a culture that idealizes the relentless pursuit of 'self,' " he writes. "When you ignore reality for too long you begin to feel immune to, or above, the gravitational pull that bounds everyone else. You are courting disaster."
Fortunately for him, he doesn't hang around. Lowe signs with an agent in junior high and gets some small-time work, including a spot on a short-lived sitcom. The work dries up and he's about to chuck it all and go to college when he gets a call. He's got (celebrity-memoir convention alert) one last shot at the big time: Francis Ford Coppola is casting The Outsiders.
We all know the universe is dominated by entropy and that everything is dissolving inevitably and irreversibly into chaos and emptiness. Thermodynamics tells us that, on average, you can't win, and you can't break even either. But we also know that on a small scale, over short stretches of time, entropy can reverse itself. Miracles happen. Order arises out of chaos spontaneously. That's what happens when a celebrity gets his big break. That's what happens to Lowe.
The Outsiders casting call is the book's great set piece. Everybody is there: Dennis Quaid, Scott Baio, Mickey Rourke, that kid from E.T., that kid from On Golden Pond. After endless rounds of readings and auditions, orchestrated to Italian opera by the eccentric Coppola, the cast gets finalized, and it's a Who's-Going-to-Be-Who of young Hollywood: Lowe, Tom Cruise, Thomas Howell, Estevez, Matt Dillon, Ralph Macchio, Patrick Swayze. (Also Leif Garrett!) It's like the Big Bang of 1980s movies, with all that beefcake and hairspray compressed into one infinitely hot, dense dot, about to explode. It's a thermodynamic anomaly.
It's also the best part of the memoir: everybody's happy and poor and idiotic and talented and achingly ignorant of all the rubbish to come. They get drunk and pick up girls (Matt Dillon is the alpha male) and learn their craft and have backflip contests and earnest, tearful, bonding conversations. In the end, most of Lowe's big scenes will be edited out, and he'll wind up as a minor character in The Outsiders. But he doesn't know that yet.
What follows is more familiar, though still thoroughly entertaining: the Brat Pack years, the Wayne's World years, the alcoholic obscurity, the glamorous romances (Princess Stephanie of Monaco!), the inevitable rehab and the triumphant comeback on The West Wing. It's all quite entertaining, and the writing really isn't bad (though the record suggests that I would have kept reading even if it were), and Lowe shows a lot of self-awareness for a celebrity. He's nice about his mom, for example, who seems, reading between the lines, to have put him through a lot. "[She] will never be in the ranks of eight-by-ten-clutching, armchair-directing, aggressively hustling stage mothers that haunt every waiting room in show business," he writes. "Mostly she guides me from the sidelines, quietly. And the message to me is: This game is yours to win."
There's not a lot of attitude. And not a lot of whining either, which is good, because even when things are at their worst the Brat Pack label; the sex tape ("it never occurred to me that there could be anyone in the club who wasn't of age"); throwing up on-air while stumping for Michael Dukakis; dating Fawn Hall; singing a duet with Snow White at the Oscars Lowe's life is pretty charmed. He hung out with Andy Warhol. He had an affair with Nastassja Kinski. He presumably made tons of money. (He swapped some of his up-front fee on Wayne's World for a back-end deal instead. Good call.)
If you're an aficionado of the form, Lowe's memoir will give you every satisfaction that a cheesy celebrity memoir can give. It also gave me a keener understanding of the fluky psychological makeup that being a celebrity requires, and of how close to insane almost everybody Lowe meets is. You have to be right on the brink to make it work. Lowe gives us a nice closeup look at Cruise: he's inhumanly focused, a true psychological outlier, a land shark with an agent. (Lowe happens to be in Chicago while Cruise is shooting Risky Business, but Cruise declines to meet up: "I want to spend time hanging out with you," he says, "but Joel doesn't.") His ascent parallels Lowe's but with a staggeringly steeper slope: five years after The Outsiders, while Lowe is still struggling along in Illegally Yours, Cruise is making Rain Man. Maybe Lowe wasn't damaged quite enough?
But then take a look at the doomed Chris Farley, on the set of Tommy Boy, chugging an espresso before every take and plowing through two porterhouse steaks for dinner. On each bite of steak each bite he places an entire pat of butter. "It needs a hat!" he giggles. Even in Hollywood, there's such a thing as being too crazy. You can only hold off entropy for so long.