Jared Leto, the self-regarding actor-turned-musician who never fails to capitalize on a bad idea and who always says the right thing, is in 2014 what Marlon Brando was in 1950, a man out of time, an historical anomaly. Not because, ala Brando, he’s monumentally talented, or absolutely stunning to look at, nor for that matter is he a flat-out genius, the master of an art of his own making.
Not that I wish to discount him altogether–on the contrary, the extent to which he demonstrates some of these qualities, and doesn’t, is the very problem, because he thrives on the ambiguity. To the point where his mere presence in Hollywood is unique for being present at all. It’s as if he’s airbrushed himself into history. So for all his worldly efforts–the short films (which he directs using the pseudonym “Bartholomew Cubbins,” yuck), the arty snapshots courtesy of Terry Richardson, the method acting, the blank emoting, his practiced speeches and endless harping about his impoverished youth–he gives the distinct impression of a man who shouldn’t be where he is. Yet there he is, hobnobbing with the best of them, a monumental phony amongst phonies.
Leto does not write much himself; his public pronouncements traditionally come by way of interviews, speeches, press releases, oh yeah, and songs. He leaves no traceable paper trail, just unsubstantial, scattered tidbits of calculated wisdom like “don’t let what you can’t do get in the way of what you can.” To my knowledge, the only place his writing has been published at any length is The Sunday Times, wherein he writes about growing up poor in Massachusetts. As it happens, the article, named “Relative Values: My brother has been to some very dark places,” is Leto through and through: humble yet painstakingly practiced, sincere yet full of shit. Perpetually teetering on cliché, it’s the prose of an unflappable PR merchant who somehow managed to knot himself to the world stage and somehow won’t come undone.
His opening few lines, for example, which have been worked over and published on no less than five separate occasions:
“Mom had my brother, Shannon, when she was 17. She had me 18 months later. At that point, she was living in Louisiana, and it wasn’t long before she knew she wanted to get out. Grabbing me and Shannon in one arm and a fist full of food stamps in the other, this teenage single mom of ours headed up north to Massachusetts.”
He doesn’t stop there, making sure to contrast his own poverty against that of his Cajun grandparents (note the traveling salesman, just for emphasis):
“We actually thought they were rich, because they had a pool in the backyard–probably bought off some traveling salesman–which we’d sit in for hours, trying to keep cool.”
He’s very sly, this Leto. Again, note how he beefs up his troublemaking persona by downplaying his escapades at school:
“…one of us was always being sent to the principal’s office for some trouble we’d caused. But, to be honest, the teachers were small-fry. We weren’t bothered about the stuff we did at school; it was the shit we did outside that we didn’t want them finding out about.”
By the time the story moves to Washington, Leto is into some heavy shit, and he isn’t shy about maybe, kind of implying that he might have taken drugs at some point:
“Those were the days when you’d sit in a circle with a group of other people and a needle would be passed around. A lot of those people aren’t here anymore.”
The next sentence is yet another reworking of a sentiment disclosed elsewhere:
“To be honest, there were probably only two things I thought about being back then: one was an artist, the other was a drug dealer.”
His salvation comes, finally, when he rejoins his art classes. His brother, however, is not so fortunate:
“It was different for my brother. The drug-taking got worse. He had his demons. He went to some very dark places. He’s lucky to be alive.”
Apart from a very standard Inspirational Message about dreams becoming reality, that’s really all the insight we get into Shannon Leto’s life as Jared Leto’s brother. But I guess the most important angle in the story’s been covered, which is that he’s Jared Leto’s brother.
• Jared Leto is the Center of the Universe by David Thorpe