Thursday, January 24, 2008

COMMENTARY: Heath Ledger's Death

As published in The Technician:

Reflect on life, not on death

"I hope they finished filming The Dark Knight."

That was the first thought that entered my head last night when I heard the news that actor Heath Ledger had been found dead his in his New York apartment. I know, I know, I'm a jerk -- a guy dies and the first thing I think of is how it will affect the movie. But I'm not the only one who thought that, it seems. In fact, it seems like people everywhere care more about the circumstances and the effects of his death, rather than the simple fact that he died.

A few recent articles even have headlines like, "Ledger's autopsy inconclusive; details will take 10 days" -- as if to say, "In two weeks, we'll be back with the latest gossip and speculation!"

I guess that's to be expected in a culture where the cult of celebrity is growing larger every day. Americans are obsessed with celebrities, and I'm not sure why. Maybe it's because they represent success, and wealth -- you know, the American dream. Maybe it's just because we're jealous. Whatever the reason, you've got to wonder why people can tell you the name of Tom and Katie's kid but don't know who won the last political primary.

There is a common perception nowadays that because someone is "famous" we should devote countless hours of attention to their lives, and not just their lives, but their deaths as well. Remember when Anna Nicole Smith died, and how for weeks you couldn't turn to CNN without seeing her face plastered everywhere? I'm not saying it wasn't newsworthy, but surely there were other more important and relevant events happening in the world during that time. What does that say about us as a culture? Is that something good or bad? I don't have an answer, I'm just saying it's something to think about.

A few minutes after the Ledger story broke, I got an IM from a friend telling me that Wikipedia was going bonkers. Users were editing Ledger's entry to include what was then just speculation about how he had died. One minute it said he had died of an intentional heroin overdose.Then you'd hit Refresh, only to find it was now listed as accidental. Some people even edited the entry as a prank, posting that he'd been found wearing his Joker make-up, and other film-related falsities. How respectful.

Hollywood has lost one of its brightest young stars, but rather than simply acknowledge this fact, the media (not to mention the majority of average citizens) immediately jumped all over the story and started implying things that may or may not be true. Heck, it's been two days since he died, and I'm still not sure what really happened. Was it an accident or a suicide? Was it related at all to his work, particularly his new role as a twisted psychopath in the new Batman movie? Was he a drug addict?

What I'm wondering is: does any of that matter?

A talented performer is gone, and the world -- at least from the eyes of a filmgoer -- is worse without him. Perhaps before we jump to conclusions and make investigations and discover the "truth" behind his death, we should take a few minutes to reflect on his life. It's a courtesy usually offered to non-celebrities. Why should the rich and famous be treated any differently?

I remember when I first saw Ledger on screen, in the Mel Gibson war drama The Patriot. It wasn't a breakthrough performance, but it certainly indicated that there were some serious acting chops beneath the pretty face. It would only be a few years later when he'd be nominated for an Academy Award for Brokeback Mountain. And with all the publicity surrounding his new role in The Dark Knight, it seemed like he was on the verge of superstardom. All that, and the main questions being asked now is, "Did the apartment belong to Mary-Kate Olsen?" and "Is it because he got too immersed in the role of the Joker?"

I wonder if Ledger could see us now, what he'd think about all the uproar. Maybe he'd feel honored we care enough to get so riled up about the details of his death.

But then again, maybe he'd think this was all just a big joke.


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