Letter from the Editor

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Death as a marketing tool

Heath Ledger was one of my favorite actors, probably because he wasn't an actor at all. For that reason, he came off as a real person, and in his brief 28 years, he played diverse comedy and drama roles in some quite memorable pictures.

Like most people, I was a little shocked to hear of his sudden death. (Not greatly shocked, because Hollywood success does seem to take a toll, but this was a guy who certainly seemed to have it all going for him.)

Not more than a couple of hours later on the same day as the death, I happened upon one of those worthless Hollywood "news" channels while flipping the TV - to find a show filled with "experts" cold-bloodedly musing upon how much Ledger's death would boost the box office for his upcoming Batman movie and raise demand for his stuff on the DVD market.

It's all dollars and cents, baby. And nothing sells like death.

It didn't take long to see the evidence. Within a couple of hours of the death, at least one Best Buy store had erected a special display to hawk its supply of videos starring young Ledger. Real classy.

The mass media, of course, was its usual blood-sucking self.

The New York Daily News cover the morning after the death read: "Heath Ledger Found Naked in Soho Loft."

Along with a photo of them wheeling his corpse out of the building, they included, in big letters, 'Drug' Death.

Can you imagine what that would do to a family?

The New York Post managed to perhaps sink even lower - it chose to pep up its coverage with photos of Ledger hanging from a noose - which were actually old promo stills from a movie he had been working on in London.

(You may remember the tabloid photos when Kurt Cobain shot himself, as the papers dug up an old promo photo of the Nirvana frontman with a gun in his mouth.)

The Post's headline was "Heath Ledger ODs on Pills." It also managed to print the names and photos of the maid and masseuse who had found the body.

Lurid sells, apparently, and the fact that no official source had at the time indicated anything about a drug overdose or a possible suicide (just that some sleeping pills had been found in the room) was no reason for shameless "journalists" to delay printing complete speculation as fact.

An actor couldn't buy the kind of media exposure they can get is they just have the good form to die young in some form of compromising position. A singer could work a whole career and not get the kind of notoriety they can get from going bonkers for a moment and clipping off their hair.

In a way, it is almost as if we are hounding the people who entertain us toward some tragedy that will entertain us even more. Can you look at the gleeful-stalked news coverage of our young stars' dissolving lives and seemingly endless bouts of rehab and doubt that we won't get the tragic ends we as a society so seem to thirst for?

Strange world.

My purpose here is not to cannonize Health Ledger or other pop culture luminaries. I have no doubt he was as flawed a character as we all tend to be at times. He was certainly talented at his craft, and I can't help but wonder what he could have achieved if it had not come to this at 28.

I wonder the same about the suicide cases we have seen in Storm Lake, the thankfully few accidental deaths of young people, the local young people who wind up in jail, those crippled by illnesses much too young.

Somebody's son or daughter, every one. What might they have done, if things had been different?

At the time I write this, I don't know what really led to the end of Heath Ledger. If we ever do fully know, I can only hope that maybe, if appropriate, it will be seen by young people who may learn from it. Aside from that one, tenuously possible worthwhile result, I would rather not know sad or lurid details of a stranger's life. I would just as soon see them left with their dignity.

I recalled reading about one interview with Heath Ledger that I stumbled on while doing a film review for the Pilot. I've just gone and looked it up again.

"In a way I was spoon-fed a career," he had said. "It was fully manufactured by a studio that believed it could put me on their posters and turn me into a product... I hadn't figured out properly how to act, and all of a sudden I was being thrown into these lead rolls."

On the surface, you could look at an attractive, wealthy, seemingly successful star, people who seemingly have everything they could desire and more, who date the most beautiful and famous people and live in the most glamorous places, and perhaps wish to be them, or be like them...

And then you see the truth... and watch all the people rushing to profit from sadness and tragedy.

When the best route to success is through early death, there's really something wrong here.