February 3, 2008

Keith Who?


Twenty-eight year-old sort-of actor Heath Ledger died on the afternoon of Tuesday, January 22nd. The cause of death, according to initial reports, was a really stupid accidental overdose.

            When the news first broke, I thought they were still talking about troubled young sort-of actor Brad Renfro. It took me a second to figure out it was some other young actor. To be honest I’d never be able to tell them apart if you showed me headshots and pointed. But whatever; even if I’d never seen any of Mr. Ledger’s movies, I’d certainly heard the name a few times (both Morgan and I thought it was “Keith Ledger”), so I guess it was newsworthy.

            The thing is, it didn’t go away. A week later, fans were still mourning publicly and the investigation into his stupid overdose was still underway and still in the news. After the first reports of the death itself (and assorted accompanying bad guesses) came coverage of the NYPD’s findings and the coroner’s report. The initial autopsy was inconclusive, which meant another two weeks of pointless speculation in the news. Then came the irrelevant Mary-Kate Olsen connection and coverage of the funeral arrangements. Recent Ledger interviews were being scrutinized for clues of any kind.

            Meanwhile, Morgan tells me that several days after the fact, the covers of both of the free morning papers featured pictures of distraught fans wailing and pulling their hair near the makeshift sidewalk memorial. And what’s with those makeshift memorials anyway? How did that insane practice get started? What kind of loser brings candles, or flowers, or makes a big cardboard sign and tapes it to some stranger’s gate? Don’t these people have jobs or families or concerns of their own?

            Then there were the endless interviews with neighbors and celebrities and fans, all of whom agreed that Mr. Ledger was a very nice fellow who loved his young daughter very much.

            The question is, why? Why this deranged media overkill, and over-the-top public reaction? Had they rested all their hopes and dreams on a possible sequel to A Knight’s Tale?

            This isn’t about Mr. Ledger of course—I’m sure he was a very nice guy. Everybody says so. But Christ, people!

            I wondered the same thing about Anna Nicole Smith after she was on the cover of the Post nearly every day for three months after she O.D.’d. You sure didn’t see that kind of coverage for Doodles Weaver or Billy Barty when they died, did you? Hell no. And they were far more talented and had a much larger cultural impact than Ms. Smith and Mr. Ledger combined.

            “Every generation needs their own James Dean or River Phoenix,” a friend of mine said. But I’m not sure that’s an accurate analogy—if anything I’d just leave it at River Phoenix who, believe you me, was no James Dean. Hell, come to think of it, even James Dean was no James Dean. And this Ledger guy? I’m sorry, but he was a generic mannequin who was in a handful of movies (most of them laughably awful), one television series, and made guest appearances on dozens upon dozens of talk shows. In fact, he was probably better known for his talk show appearances than his movies—which would make him less “this generation’s James Dean” than “this generations Zsa Zsa Gabor.”

            Maybe my friend should’ve said, “every generation needs some young pretty boy model pretending to be an actor to die stupidly.” That covers it, I think.

            Okay, so he played a gay cowboy. Big whoop, like that’s anything new. Wally Cox and Elisha Cook, Jr. both played gay cowboys in their day. Mercedes McCambridge played almost nothing but lesbian cowboys, and you sure didn’t see this kind of outpouring when they died.

            I mean, come now, does anyone (apart from his family) honestly believe—and I mean honestly believe deep in their hearts—that Mr. Ledger actually made any sort of lasting contribution to the culture or the art of acting? Put it this way—ten years from now, will people look at some new hotshot young actor and say, “Yes, he’s pretty good—but he’s no Heath Ledger!” I sure hope not. And if people really feel that way, I think we’re in far deeper shit than I could’ve imagined.

            I’m sorry, but it’s just the way I feel.

            Normally I’m tempted to blame everything these days on the Internet and a self-absorbed youth culture blissfully unaware of anything that took place before 1998. To a certain degree I could probably do that in this case, too, but that would be too simple. Fact is, this is just the latest in a long history of media-whipped public frenzies. There were riots in Midtown—big ones, too—after Valentino died, after all. (Okay, so Valentino really did make a big impact, but let’s ignore that).

            It’s not just celebrities who prompt it, either. If you’re young, and pretty, and rich and you die unexpectedly—whether or not you’ve been in a lot of crappy movies—you’re going to be much bigger news than, say, a poor single mother in Bed-Stuy or some smelly old bum in the South Bronx. Plus, you’re gonna stay big news for at least a few days, if not longer. You know it and I know it; it’s just the way things work. And they work that way because we want them to. People are more willing to pick up newspapers if there’s a dead model on the cover, as opposed to a dead bum. Heath Ledger as opposed to Billy Barty. We are so desperate for something—heroes, role models, dreams, whatever it might be—that we’re more than happy to turn some rich, pretty, young actor’s accidental overdose into a tragedy far worse than the deaths of three firemen battling a warehouse blaze.

            (There are exceptions to that rule, of course—if a “troubled young actor” with a “history of drug and alcohol problems” dies, it’ll be mentioned on the news, but nobody will care all that much, no matter how young, rich and pretty he or she was.)

            There’s nothing new or original in this idea, of course—it’s centuries old. It’s sad, though, that for all the things that have changed, that particular element of human nature has only grown stronger and more absurd. What a bunch of pathetic losers we’ve become.

            Maybe I can blame that on the Internet.


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