Dying Young: Reflections on Celebrity
The recent passing of Heath Ledger released a flood of media coverage on the actor’s “tragic death” and his contributions to Hollywood. Suddenly, Ledger was lifted to a status never seen while he was alive. Why does it take death for us to turn someone into an icon? What fascinates us about the death of celebrities? And how, then, do you die like a rock star? Donna Weimer, Thornbury Professor of Communication, pulls back the curtain on this Hollywood phenomenon.
What does it take to be a Hollywood icon?
You can be iconic in two ways. Michael Jackson, Madonna, they represent a world of rock and roll. To a certain extent, we follow their ups and downs. Britney Spears is an icon, but in the same sense as O.J. Simpson. The second way is with actors like James Dean and Marilyn Monroe, who we feel are extremely gifted and are taken too soon. Princess Diana fits into this category. Tragedy overcomes their lives. The weight of celebrity is more than they can handle, and we see them as fragile artists.
How does an icon escape societal repercussions of a death involving, say, drug overdose?
If someone isn’t forgiven for their drug use, then they are not an icon. Heath Ledger was just another person with a lot of wealth and a lost opportunity. It ends up highlighting the successes of others in their field, such as Brad Pitt, George Clooney and Meryl Streep.
In cases such as Marilyn Monroe, why do we forgive such behavior?
For me, it is one of the delicious contradictions of our age. We have these people in front of us 24/7. There is an expectation that they have access to drugs, and it is something they have to fight. But we believe that things in their lives are so difficult, that we forgive them in their excesses. Of all the classes of icons, we cherish young gifted actors and artists the most.
Why do we look up to these celebrities as role models?
Celebrity is not often based on talent, which is why I would make a distinction between celebrity, hero and role model. Celebrity is in the public eye, and that somehow fascinates us. It often reminds me of the wiliness of the pantheon of Greek gods. They had faults and jealousies, but the key thing was that they were larger than life.
How do you interpret Heath Ledger’s death and are there any examples of such icons in your life?
River Phoenix was very hard for me to cope with. Someone I admired who was tremendously gifted and unable to handle and cope with celebrity. I couldn’t call Heath Ledger a tragic hero, but his death is tragic. It is very bizarre at some level that actors sustain this place in our psyche.
- Adam Stanley '08, Juniata online journalist