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Show Business: Overdosing on Bad Dreams

6 minute read
Jay Cocks

A new book casts dim light on the life of John Belushi

By the time that John Belushi finally bought it, in the winter of 1982, he had already made a considerable and enthusiastic investment in his own destruction. He had also bought, whole, every sorry, second-rate dream of success that American pop culture has to offer: the performer as outlaw, the outlaw as sha man; self-immolation as the fulfillment of a creative spirit that burns too hot to contain or understand; drugs as recreation, revelation and social challenge, a turn-on for talent, a tip sheet for personal apocalypse. He died, really, of the cumulative effects not only of the cocaine and heroin that had swollen his brain and bloated his heart but of all these bad dreams.

From the time he got his first taste of success in the early ’70s, performing in Chicago with the improvisational troupe Second City, Belushi’s life was an increasingly frenetic series of binges, punctuated by bouts of intense work. At the end there was no way out, and no help for him.

That is the way his life reads, anyhow, in Bob Woodward’s mildly sensational, ultimately senseless account, Wired: The Short Life and Fast Times of John Belushi (Simon and Schuster, $17.95). The book, kicked off with a front-page serialization launch and favorable review in the Washington Post, where Au thor Woodward heads up the investigative reporting staff, is drawing the kind of hoopla usually kindled by more conventional show-biz behemoths; an excerpt has also appeared in Playboy. Like some Hollywood superproduction, the book boasts a long list of cameo appearances by stars (Jack Nicholson, Robin Williams, Robert De Niro, Carrie Fisher and miscellaneous The Rolling Stones) whose presence has nothing of importance to contribute save what agents and producers like to call “name value.”

Indeed, the entire book is basically an exercise in casting: get the country’s star investigative reporter to tackle “the unanswered questions” about the grubby death of America’s favorite counterculture co median. The fact that the co-author of All the President’s Men and The Final Days was on the case invested Belushi’s life with a weight and dimension it lacked when he was busy living it. It turns out, however, that there are no unanswered questions that matter. So everyone comes up short: Belushi’s widow and his sister-in-law, who first enlisted Woodward in the project; the author himself, who does a considerable amount of vamping and page filling by re-creating old Belushi routines from Saturday Night Live; and any reader who hopes to learn some lesson from Belushi’s death or is even curious to know why it matters.

Belushi had a kind of reckless, rock-‘n’-roll comedic sensibility. He was a volatile combination of Lou Costello and Vlad the Impaler, a performer with a wide appeal but a narrow range, whose talent could ignite television sketches but was quickly being tapped out in movies. He did not have the generative comic gifts of an Albert Brooks, say, or an Andy Kaufman, but he had a gruff, tough persona that exuded phantom wisps of tenderness and set him quite apart. He was the most intriguing of the Saturday Night troupe even as he was demolishing a set with his samurai sword or gobbling up the scenery in impersonations that ran the gamut from Kissinger to Brando to Jake Blues, a perfect and loving parody of an oldtime soul man.

Woodward does not attempt to appraise Belushi or to put him into any social or moral perspective. Like Sergeant Joe Friday, Woodward goes for just the facts, and they do not take him very far or deep. Since many of the facts are known from the headlines anyway, Woodward must resort to details. In large part, this means recounting endless rounds of drug blowouts, frazzled work sessions and show-biz parties. There are occasional testimonials to Belushi’s sweetness (he and his wife make love on a Martha’s Vineyard cliff; he buys his father a ranch in California and settles some family debts), but the book is swamped by examples of his “monomania.” There is frequent mention of the great actor he might have been, but the evidence of his seven films indicates mostly that he was playing image, not mining character.

The book even bypasses the one potentially intriguing question about Belushi’s death: Why did the Los Angeles police release Cathy Smith, who was subsequently indicted for murder and for “furnishing and administering” speedballs (potent mixtures of cocaine and heroin) during the final days of Belushi’s life? Portrayed by Woodward as a user and sometime dealer of heroin, Smith was able to hotfoot it to Canada, where she is still fighting extradition. Woodward is so absorbed in writing about Belushi’s demons that he has barely a moment to suggest where they might have originated. Evoking an Albanian father who ran a couple of restaurants in Chicago and was never around for holidays “because they were often the biggest days in the restaurant business” is hardly an adequate way to measure the depths of Belushi’s kamikaze Thanatos.

“It gets worse as it gets better,” Belushi once told a friend in the summer of 1980, two years after Animal House, in which he played the definitive slob frat boy, had become one of the top-grossing movie comedies of all time. It is impossible not to care a little about the man who could make such an observation, just as it is difficult not to be fond of someone who, in the middle of a furious brawl with his brother, could observe, “This is just like East of Eden.” But Wired, so full of details, is so short on insight that Belushi never becomes any larger or more understandable than a gifted guy who pigged out on success. That might have satisfied Sergeant Joe Friday, but it is not enough for a book. Belushi haunted the night, always wanting to stay up and never to sleep. What he saw whenever he closed his eyes is what needed to be written about, but it is not between the covers of Wired. There are some places simple facts cannot go.

—By Jay Cocks

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