Not only is immense pressure a driving force behind addiction in actors, a dangerous combination of excess in money, limelight, freedom, extravagance, and codependency on the part of those surrounding the star also facilitates substance abuse. Below are 10 Oscar winners who were known to have struggled with drugs on their way to the top.

Sean Penn

A two-time Academy Award winner, Penn wasn’t always a respected player. In the 80s he was infamous for his turbulent marriage to superstar Madonna, which reportedly got physical when he began abusing alcohol- some reports even stated he bound and gagged her in their apartment when he would leave to buy more booze. His outspoken tantrums in public didn’t help him either, until 1995 when he was cast opposite Susan Sarandon in the critically acclaimed Dead Man Walking, where he portrayed a Death Row inmate facing lethal injection for murder. Earning him his first Oscar nomination, he began to slowly merge off his bad boy image and into calmer roles. His second and third nods came in 1999 for Woody Allen’s Sweet & Lowdown and 2001’s I Am Sam - both of which focused on a gentler side of the actor. He finally won the gold in 2003 for Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River, as a grieving father and ex-con, and later in 2008 for portraying a gay activist in Gus Van Sant’s Milk

Robin Williams

Autopsies report that an anti-depressant was in the comedian’s system after his suicide, but his struggle with cocaine and alcohol abuse dates back more than 30 years. “Cocaine for me was a place to hide. Most people get hyper on coke. It slowed me down”, Williams told People magazine in 1988. He was able to quit the drug cold turkey following the death of his Saturday Night Live costar John Belushi, who overdosed on heroin during their work week. Williams went on to earn 4 Oscar nominations, starting with a comedy in 1987’s Good Morning, Vietnam as a radio disk jockey, and then being cited for three dramas: 1989’s Dead Poets Society, 1991’s The Fisher King, and 1997’s Good Will Hunting, the latter for which he triumphed in the Best Supporting Actor category. 


Heath Ledger

Notorious for Ledger’s role as the Joker in the blockbuster smash The Dark Knight, the method actor allegedly turned to narcotics to enhance his acting, yet some maintain his divorce with Michelle Williams played a role in his drug use as well. 

The short-lived career of the late actor could have ended due in part to his Oscar winning role as the sinister villain. Reports from various colleagues claim Ledger would often come to work unrested, down bottles of ecstasy at social parties, and admit grief over the loss of custody to his daughter with Michelle Williams, after the couple split. Although his death was ruled “accidental” by medical examiners, there was excessive evidence of prescription medications in his system. Ledger’s first Oscar nomination, and rise to fame, came in the controversial role of Ennis in Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, a look at a closeted gay relationship between two cowboys in rural Wyoming. His award for Best Supporting Actor in 2008 was presented posthumously. 

Elizabeth Taylor

One of the most photographed movie stars in history didn’t pass away from drug overdose or alcoholism. In fact, this violet eyed beauty was the reason many future public figures went on to get help. Her courage and determination to finally enter a treatment facility in the 80s, after continuous battles with addiction, became the gateway for others to follow suit. Not just celebrities- congressman, lawyers, doctors, fireman and housewives all were noted to follow the path of this Hollywood powerhouse. Taylor’s rise to fame may have started with her role as the young horse lover in 1944’s National Velvet, but Oscar didn’t come a knocking until 1957 when she was remembered for Raintree County, as a southern belle. She would go on to receive three more consecutive nominations, playing sexpot roles in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Suddenly, Last Summer, and Butterfield 8. She won her first of two Oscars for the latter film, centering on a female prostitute trying to get out of the business. Taylor bitterly denounced the film, and was said to have won due to her suffering from pneumonia and almost dying weeks up to the awards telecast. She won her second trophy for her most celebrated performance, in Mike Nichols Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, a harrowing look at alcoholism and its deconstructive powers. Taylor portrayed a frumpy housewife married to a mousy professor- her real life husband Richard Burton. 

Judy Garland 

Judy Garland was cursed right from her childhood when she entered Hollywood. The young starlet was constantly probed by producers to lose weight, which led to a diet pill obsession, while working on numerous musicals in the thirties. This experience eventually led her to her most recognizable role as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. She won an Oscar for her performance in the 1939 Oz movie and went on to earn two more Oscar nominations- for Best Actress in the 1954 musical A Star Is Born (a role she almost won for), and the grim drama Judgment at Nuremberg in 1961. In 1969 she sadly passed from an overdose of barbiturates. 

Elton John 

“I was consumed by Cocaine, booze and who knows what else. I apparently never got the memo that the Me generation had ended” a quote from John in Love Is the Cure: On Life, Loss & the End of AIDS, published in 2012, shows just how easily someone can slip into the grasp of addiction. There’s no denying that the music business is swarming with temptation but John had dealt with much of this all his career until getting clean in 1990. Mostly known for winning Grammy awards, the pop legend finally took home a statue in 1994 for his song “Can You Feel the Love Tonight”, from Disney’s most successful animated feature The Lion King

Richard Dreyfuss

More famous for his non-Oscar roles in the blockbusters Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Dreyfuss struggled with prescription pills and manic disorders, telling People magazine, “There’s no shame in having depression.” He also went on to quip that the reason he never attempted suicide was because “My daughter would have been really pissed.” He won his first Oscar for Best Actor in the 1977 comedy The Goodbye Girl, portraying a struggling actor who falls in love with Marsha Mason. He defeated, among others, John Travolta’s classic role in Saturday Night Fever. Despite winning earlier in his career, he wouldn’t see his next nomination for almost twenty years – in 1995’s Mr. Holland’s Opus

Vivien Leigh

You know her best for playing Scarlett O’Hara in 1939’s Best Picture winner Gone with the Wind. This British sensation, however, struggled with depression, anxiety and what would ultimately cause her death- tuberculosis. Known to mix alcohol with medication, she was also prescribed a pill called Isoniazid- which had side effects ranging from mental confusion to toxic psychosis. She was known to have breakdowns on set, most notably while filming a movie called The Elephant Walk in the early 1950s. Leigh eventually succumbed to her disease in 1967. Though her movie career was scarce, she arguably gave two of the most notable screen performances of all time. Scarlett in 1939, and Blanche DuBois in 1951’s A Streetcar Named Desire, opposite legendary Marlon Brando. She won Oscars for both roles. 

Tatum O’Neil

Child star and daughter of Ryan O’Neal (Love Story), Tatum O’Neil became the youngest person ever to win a competitive Oscar. She was only ten years old when she won for her supporting performance in 1973’s Paper Moon. She unfortunately dealt with addiction all her life, mainly with heroin. Recently, in 2014, her son Kevin McEnroe was arrested for alleged drug possession, and according to a source quoted from, “has had a serious addiction to cocaine for several years and has been to rehab at least twice.” O’Neil continues to make television appearances, including on the series Rescue Me as an AA meeting facilitator. 

Angelina Jolie 

The Maleficent star has always been open about her drug related past, which included alcohol, heroin, and cocaine. She admitted to 60 Minutes: “I went through heavy, darker times and I survived them. I didn't die young, so I'm very lucky. There are other artists and people who didn't survive certain things.” All this changed when Jolie became the Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). She has insisted that it changed her life. Her Oscar history not only includes an acting win for 1999’s Girl, Interrupted but also the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 2014. She is the daughter of Oscar winner Jon Voight, who won an Oscar in 1978 for the Vietnam film Coming Home.

Sadly, this is just a small portion of the many movie stars who have struggled with drugs and alcohol. You are not alone, if you or someone you know is battling addiction, call (877) 257-7997 or visit

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