Recently, one of the big comics news stories involves actor Shia LaBeouf and his adaptation antics. To review: LaBeouf produced a short film titled HowardCantour.com, starring the fine comedian Jim Gaffigan and presented it at Cannes in May, to mostly good response. Then, the story broke last week that the film is essentially a flat-out adaptation of Daniel Clowes’s 2007 comic Justin M. Damiano. Much of the dialogue is lifted wholesale from the comic, and the character and situation are clearly derived from the original work. None of this would be particularly newsworthy if LaBeouf had presented his film as an adaption and acknowledged the book. But he didn’t. The film, which I admit I have not seen, apparently waffles on the issue, giving no specific screenwriting credit and stating that it is simply “A Film by Shia LaBeouf”.
The legal question seems to be whether or not Shia knowingly plagiarized the comic or whether he unconsciously did so. The issue of the lack of screenwriting credit will certainly enter into the argument, as one must posit some reason why he chose to be evasive on this key issue. He admitted this week, via Twitter, that he was indeed inspired by the comic and he “neglected to follow proper accreditation”. Whether that settles the issue is up to the lawyers. (It turns out, in an ironic twist, that his twitter apology for plagiarism was itself lifted whole from a Yahoo! Answers site.)
But LaBeouf’s problems with authentication continue. On his website for the “Campaign Book” (ostensibly a place for LaBeouf to use his celebrity to promote his interests), the “about” page contains text that is obviously lifted wholesale from PictureBox’s website. This was not lost on PictureBox owner Dan Nadel, who noted this on the Comics Journal’s site, saying it was “Pretty amazing. And sad.”
Shia LaBeouf has therefore been officially “outed” as a serial plagiarizer, knowing or not. It remains to be seen how much this will affect his career as a movie star.
I am not a legal expert on these issues, nor am I knowledgeable enough about the works in question to venture an opinion on whether LaBeouf’s short film deserves attention on its own merits. However, it is interesting to put this behavior in perspective, thinking about LaBeouf’s character and the arc of his career.
Though he had been acting since age 12, and had appearances on The X-Files, ER, and Freaks and Geeks under his belt, most of us became aware of Shia LaBeouf in the early 2000s, particularly with his leading role in the quirky children’s film Holes. His true breakthrough came with the second season of Project Greenlight, the reality TV series created by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon to present filmmakers outside of Hollywood with the opportunity to make their film with the resources of a major studio (Miramax and, later, Dimension). In the show’s second season, the film chosen for production was a quirky coming-of-age story titled The Battle of Shaker Heights, and LaBeouf easily won the leading role of Kelly, the misanthropic teenager in love with an older girl. In that film, and in the television series surrounding its production, you can see a movie star coming into his own and establishing his identity.
LaBeouf was seventeen years old at the time of Shaker Heights and clearly already possessed great talent. His naturalistic, unforced yet nuanced acting skills suggested maturity far beyond his years. (Picture Ralph Macchio in The Karate Kid with about 30% more talent, and you’re close to how LaBeouf appeared at the time.) Off-camera for the film, but most assuredly in view of the Project Greenlight cameras, he comes across as full of hormones and bluster, combining playful swaggering (in one scene, he relaxes in a hot tub and complains that there isn’t a crowd of naked women with him) with some genuine tenderness towards his doting, supportive, hippie Mom. He is receptive and engaged with the directors and producers of the film, offering subtext and insight into his role and what motivates his character’s actions, but still deferring to the authority figures on set, focusing his energy on his performance and, in his words, “macking on [co-star] Amy Smart”. At one point, when he can’t remember his lines in a long speech, he descends into anger towards himself and becomes agitated and frustrated that he can’t give the filmmakers what they need to get from him. (After a break and some private time, he nails the speech word-for-word like a pro.) He therefore displays ego, but also ability and technical discipline. It’s easy, watching Project Greenlight now after a decade, to see why the producers and directors were predicting that he would become a major star, even teasing him lovingly, saying, “Who’s going to be a big movie star?!”
And, of course, Shia LaBeouf did become a big movie star. After strong performances in films such as Bobby and Disturbia, Steven Spielberg brought him into his orbit, casting him in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull as Harrison Ford’s heir apparent and he starred in Michael Bay’s Transformers franchise. Oliver Stone also cast him in the heir apparent role in 2010’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, where he gamely kept up with the veteran Michael Douglas. Since then, he seems to be picking smaller films and branching out into directing and writing.
But something happened on the way to stardom. LaBeouf doesn’t seem to have really matured as an actor in the way that was expected of him. Compare his history to someone like Matt Damon, who took chances and logged his share of failures, but yet continues to grow as an actor. Damon not only kept up with Michael Douglas in the recent Behind the Candelabra, but met the older actor as a true peer. An even better analogy might be Damon’s partner Ben Affleck, who also was positioned to become one of Hollywood’s top leading men until he was diverted into celebrity gossip for a few years. Now that Affleck has earned back the respect of many with his directorial efforts (I’m a big fan of Gone Baby Gone, for example), he can accept a big franchise role such as that of Batman without drawing universal ire. (An outpouring of gruff grousing from irate comic fans does not constitute “universal” ire. Sorry, folks.)
It seems like LaBeouf would very much like to take Affleck’s path back to stardom and legitimacy, but he’s either not prepared to put in the time to write his own material, or he lacks the awareness to realize that in this digital age, plagiarism is always discovered eventually. When I see his plagiarism exposed and his flood of confessional twitter postings, I see someone who was told a decade ago that he was going to be a “big movie star”. I see someone who has lived for the past ten years with people like Spielberg and Bay reinforcing that message. But despite those supporters (and his undoubtedly still-doting Mom offering him organic lemonades on-set), I get the feeling that Shia LaBeouf is hiding a deep imposter syndrome. He’s talented, but is he that talented? Like a hockey player, of whom great things are expected, is called up from the minor leagues (Eric Lindros comes to mind), he must be haunted by enormous expectations, explicit or implicit. Perhaps he thought he could get away with plagiarizing Daniel Clowes and Dan Nadel. He may have thought that they would be honoured to get a nod from a “big movie star”. Or he may have thought that people in the world of comics were not invested in their creator rights as much as people in Hollywood.
I also suspect LaBeouf is aware enough to see that underground comics have a certain cultural cache that mainstream movies can never offer. A 17-year-old might have visions of starring in a Transformers movie and appealing to hordes of pre-teens, but a 27-year-old with millions of dollars and a career that seems to be fading can’t exactly be blamed for trying to grab a piece of the zeitgeist. None of that excuses what he’s done: there really isn’t any excuse for blatantly ripping off an artist. But it is an explanation.