The new “Transformers” movie, subtitled “Age of Extinction,” premiered in midtown Manhattan Thursday night, attracting Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci and Steven Spielberg to talk about making explosion-happy mayhem with Michael Bay. But most of the media Friday wasn’t discussing the premiere of the latest film one of Hollywood’s biggest franchises. They were talking about the man who once starred in one of Hollywood’s biggest franchises, Shia LaBeouf.
LaBeouf, as you’ve no doubt heard, was just a few blocks away — for a little bit anyway. He was being arrested in the middle of a Broadway performance of “Cabaret” and eventually charged with criminal trespass, disorderly conduct and harassment.
The actor -- who has a history of attracting attention at Broadway shows -- had turned up to a performance of the musical starring Alan Cumming Michelle Williams, and allegedly began disrupting the show. According to several accounts, he had been making loud comments during the first act, slapping other theatergoers and even lighting up a cigarette, attracting the attention of ushers. So when the lights came up at intermission, a bunch of police officers showed up, cuffed LaBeouf and arrested him, possibly as he was in tears. He spent the night in a Manhattan jail.
The news spread quickly across social media. On Twitter, fans and armchair pundits puzzled over the (no longer such an enfant but still sometimes terribles) celeb’s latest antics.
To some, the whole thing at “Cabaret” was a bit of a performance piece. Like, literally. “He was brilliant,” said one eyewitness. “I thought he was working on a role or something.”
And some even wondered if it was all a stunt meant to draw attention away from “Transformers,” which in addition to its premiere began rolling out at midnight screenings Thursday night. LaBeouf’s Sam Witwicky character from the franchise is the most popular and successful thing he’s ever done, the movies garnering $2.7 billion and earning LaBeouf plenty of work. Though he seems to have walked away on his own, he could, the thought went, want to steal the thunder of those who followed him.
It’s a juicy theory, if a bit fanciful. Such a stunt would take a dedicatedly devious mind. If it was all premeditated it would be unlikely to end with its perpetrator in tears. It’s also not clear what the point would be. “Transformers” would still make a ton of money, new franchise star Mark Wahlberg would be sipping Champagne in a tux, and LaBeouf would spend the night hoping for some water in a prison cell.
But its intent is actually beside the point. LaBeouf has an uncanny ability to steer the story back to him, even when the subject is decidedly not him. In a meeting with a few reporters at Cannes four years ago, I watched as he went from talking about the movie he was ostensibly there to promote, “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,” to the “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” reboot from a few years prior, on which he said “we dropped the ball.” The headlines the next day were all about those statements and not the film he was there to promote. It was good copy, but there it was: Shia LaBeouf was the story again.
A similar dynamic unfolded when he famously feuded with Alec Baldwin and left the Broadway show “Orphans” last year. The production was a solid piece performed by Baldwin, LaBeouf replacement Ben Foster and Tom Sturridge (nominated for a Tony). But even after it opened, the one thing most people wanted to talk about was Shia’s exit.
And then, of course, there’s this winter’s Daniel Clowes plagiarism scandal, in which the subject should have been LaBeouf cribbing the work of another filmmaker but in fact was — surprise — him again, specifically his apologies, non-apologies and meta-apologies.
It’s all so unbelievable that if anyone ever made a movie about these incidents, an actor like Shia LaBeouf could win an Oscar playing the role of Shia LaBeouf.
Having interviewed LaBeouf several times, I can say it’s not always intentional. There’s an earnest intensity to the man of the kind I’ve rarely seen in anyone, let alone an actor. Jokes aren’t made by LaBeouf and are rarely indulged, or even understood; it’s almost like he’s puzzled by the distraction. (Asked to describe his on-set behavior, Carey Mulligan, his former girlfriend, said to me, “a lot of clapping,” as in, “OK, let’s get this done, guys,” in the get-them-moving-way of a Little League coach.) This all may not be as designed or self-aware as it seems. (Indeed, some have even wondered if he has more serious psychological issues that requires help, not tabloid scrutiny.)
Still, it’s hard to view him with unmitigated sympathy. We in the media sometimes get blame — rightly — for taking a good actor and making the story about the person and their issues instead of the work. That can’t exactly be said here. Shia LaBeouf is a talented actor, as he demonstrated in recent films like “The Company You Keep” and “Nymphomaniac,” and will probably display again in his upcoming WWII piece “Fury.” The main reason people don’t spend much time talking about it is Shia LaBeouf.