Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Significance of Heath Ledger's Death

I found out that Heath Ledger died today through Googlechat:

The Journalist:

heath ledger is dead!
that is your pop culture news brief of the day
i thought for sure we'd hear about britney spears committing suicide or
but not this guy

And then she sent me links to the Washington Post and the New York Times, which grew in length and detail over the course of the day.

I admit, I reacrted with surprise (I think I said "wtf! how?!") and I forwarded this to a few friends, mainly those who are really into film (e.g. former film studies majors, a screenwriter friend, a cineaste friend) who are also occasionally, slightly guiltily, interested in celebrity gossip. Only very little, and we feel really dirty afterwards, I promise.

And then I read this, which made me worry for my generation:

Others in the crowd said their first reaction to word of his death was disbelief. Nicole Vaughan, 24, a law student at New York University, was in a seminar about Jesus when someone sent her a message about Mr. Ledger. She checked the Web, then walked to the apartment “because of the way our generation is; we sort of feel we’re a part of each other’s lives.”

That really does make me despair over the atomization of modern society, rootless and individuated, we cling to shallow symbols to have some common conversational currency. We have no neighbors, but we have celebrities whom we know more intimately.

I can't imagine reacting with such drama. My reaction was a little sad, if only because I thought he was a very fine actor in Brokeback Mountain and Candy, and wanted to see more of his work. There are few young actors and actresses my age whose work I can imagine enjoying more with time.

Scott Eric Kaufman puts it best:

But how hypothetical is our loss? Depends on how powerful the lost actor or actress is. Consider other selective stars who, like Ledger, leveraged their clout such that they only appeared in films they believed in:

Now consider all the movies that would not have been produced had these three not thrown their weight behind the pet projects of talented directors.

Point being, the loss of talent with little clout (River Phoenix) has no real impact on what movies get made, whereas losing talent of Ledger's clout alters the Hollywood landscape. There will be no more gay cowboys. (There would have been none had not Ledger signed on. Studios were not feeling favorable to Ang Lee after the smashing success of Hulk.)

Movies already being as bad as they are, I can't help but wonder whether much of my inexplicable sadness is explicably selfish: I would love to've seen what Ledger could've forced the studios to release.

I am not so bleak as to say "there will be no more gay cowboy movies," rather I might concede "there might not have been any gay cowboy movies for a while." Perhaps some other brave A-list actor would have taken the role and the movie would have been made anyway.

In any case, because pop culture and film are the imperfect, impure crucibles in which we clarify the contentious issues of the day, I'm quite taken with Scott's point. A loss of a young man is always sad, a loss of a talented, bold, inventive actor who had so much promise more widely affecting, and the prospective impact on the artistic medium of film is something to really be sad about.