As the War in Darfur continues to spill bloodshed by the truckload and questions regarding ambiguous mortality figures remnain unanswered, only one thing consistently fill the headlines and dominates the airwaves. Celebrity deaths. While the mass killing of Sudanese men, women and children becomes a daily occurrence, we, the public are more concerned with Michael Jackson’s doctor being charged with his murder, and Farrah Fawcett’s long time partner Ryan O’Neal admitting to Vanity Fair that at her funeral, he ‘accidentally’ as a result of not recognising her, chatted up his own daughter. The very nature of our being is to become desensitized against death in large numbers, compared to our sympathetic reaction to the death of a single person, even more so if that single person is famous.
When a celebrity dies, their value increases, as merchandise endorsing the celebrity and more significantly the image they represent takes the place of the dead star in question. In death, many celebrities become immortalized through the power of branding, of which they may not have been when they where alive. In the same way that Brand Beckham has established itself in the celebrity obssesed market with its various endorsemets, clothing line and perfumes, dead celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn are more associated with their breath taking beauty and cultural importance as opposed to their often critically acclaimed work. For example, in 2008, 47 years after the death of Monroe, an announcement was made that a fashion line named House of Monroe was to release designs based upon Monroe’s sexy and sophisticated style. Such heavily marketed techniques as this assist in the apparent need to dissociate Monroe from the suspicious circumstances surrounding her death. With her beauty, style and influence on many women the world over, universally agreed upon, Monroe is kept preserved as celebrity who is still very much alive, as opposed to a 36 year old woman, hunted by a reputation of being difficult and erratic and dealing with various personal problems.
In contrast, there are some celebrities whom are no longer with us, of which society is fanatical about, because of the genuine and noticeable impact their work has had on popular culture. The actor James Dean, while alive, was most popular for his brooding good looks and his portryal in Rebel without a Cause, which encouraged the young of the 1950’s to embrace him as a spokesperson for their generation. However it was after he died that he received a posthumous Oscar nomination for Giant and to this day is commonly placed in various top 100 best actor of all time lists. Marvin Gaye became Motown personified as he used his music to make social commentary on the racial, sexual and political injustices of the time. Bob Marley provided a voice for a generation promoting peace which resonates with people across all social and racial boundaries. As did Kurt Cobain who spoke for the group of kids who felt like outsiders and through his music was able to speak to and speak for these lonely kids. Unfortunately, these men are connected by their shocking and untimely deaths. Dean died in a car crash, Gaye was shot by his father, Marley was struck by skin cancer and Cobain committed suicide. However, in all four, their celebrity currency lies within their body of work, more so than their individual personnas. The material they offered to the public was and still is overwhelmingly loved and respected, hence their legacy has more substance and so it is deemed more acceptable to idolise and romanticize their time on earth and ignore their tragic deaths.
What is more interesting, is witnessing the way in which celebrities react to the death of other celebrities. Some might say that this, more than the average person’s reaction, is more telling of the fickle world of the rich and famous. Within hours of hearing the news of Jackson’s death celebrities from the music, film and fashion world were sending their condolences, making tributes and expressing their sorrow, albeit via Twitter. American musician John Mayer tweeted, ‘Dazed in the studio. A major strand of our cultural DNA has left us. RIP MJ’and even Stephen Fry expressed ‘Goodness. Michael Jackson. Poor old soul. Oh dear.’ While less famous stars like MC Hammer wrote ‘I will be mourning my friend , brother, mentor and inspiration.. He gave me and my family hope. I would never have been me without him.’ It cannot be denied that Jackson’s body of work, especially his early solo records Off the Wall and Thriller, which reached new heights and set the standard of musical greatness, would have influeneced every musician and dancer over the past 30 years. Nonetheless in researching for this article and reading other celebrity tweets all posted within a few hours of each other, it appears that many of them attempted to out do each other with their tributes.
Arguably many celebrities did have something to gain from Jackson’s death. If they offer displays of sadness and heartache, then they become emotionally available and take a break from the perfect and unattainable image they are so used to portraying. When young pubescent children witness their own idols such as Beyonce, Britney and Justin Timberlake lamenting about Jackson who was their idol, it makes it okay and justify’s any sad response they may have for a man who released most of his best material around 10 years before they were even born. Author Leo Brady explains that “celebrities have their aura- a debased version of charisma” and goes on to liken them to Christian patron saints. There are some saints such as Saint Christopher is far better known and called upon than Saint Oswine of Deira. If such a comparison between saints and celebrities is to be accepted, then evidence of a ranking order should be found in the celebrity sphere also.
This order of ranking can be identified as a hierarchy of the brightness of a celebrity’s star. This is applied in the reporting of celebrity romances, mariages, babies and most importantly deaths. For example, the relationship between Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie is deemed more news worthy than that of two Big Brother contestants. The same applies when various celebrities die around the same time. As well as many of us forgetting about the death of English actress Natasha Richardson, who died earlier this year after a skiing accident, the passing of Fawcett was completely overshadowed by Jackson’s who died just a mere few hours after her. This was no more evident in the speed of which media coverage changed and adapted to the ongoing breaking news of Jackson’s reported heart attck right up to confirmation of his death. This could simply be explained by establishing the difference between Fawcett’s status as a 70’s icon to Jackson’s status as a cultural institution. Never mind the fact that Fawcett was dying slowly from cancer while Jackson’s heart attack was unexpected. That is only minor reasoning for what happened. The fact is Jackson is, was and will always be higher up the celebrity food chain than Fawcett will ever be. Although we say that one life is no more valuable than any other, this response from both the public and the media would suggest otherwise.
So who can we claim as our icon of death? Who can we claim to have grown up with and watch nearly reach the peak of their fame before their sudden downfall? Who will be our Marley, or Dean or Cobain? My answer is Heath Ledger. We will remember how in our teens we laughed at him in 10 Things I Hate About You, swooned over him in A Knights Tale. Then as we entered our twenties we watched in awe as he became a man in Brokeback Mountain and marveled at his Oscar winning performance in The Dark Knight and yet saddened at the realization that that would be his last film. Ledger was unable to reach and fulfill his potential, which leaves us wondering what could have been. This allows for generations after us, our children and even our children’s children, to first learn of Ledger, accept him and adopt him, and claim some sort of ownership, for they, in the midst of their own growing up will be able to relate to him. Unlike the scandalous and allegedly squalid deaths of legends Marlon Brando who became morbidly obese and Elvis Presley who supposedly died while using the lavatory, Ledger was still aesthetically pleasing and the respect for him in the film industry was gaining fast momentum. For this reason, his death is unjustified, and therefore our obsession with the mystery surrounding why and how he died will continue, until our own generation dies and the generation after us has come to obsess over him or someone new.