Feature

Heath Ledger: Mourning another fallen star

Heath Ledger died only last week, said Jenny Lyn Bader in The New York Times, but he has already been transformed from talented actor to

Heath Ledger died only last week, said Jenny Lyn Bader in The New York Times, but he has already been transformed from talented actor to “cultural touchstone.” The sudden death of the 28-year-old star generated an unprecedented wave of grief and fascination among his peers in the Internet generation, as the word “Ledger” instantly became one of the “most-searched” terms on Google; more than 30,000 people left messages on a Facebook memorial page. The murky circumstances of the brooding actor’s death—authorities have not yet determined whether prescription drugs were a factor—certainly added to the interest. But there also was something timeless about the reaction, a reminder that when it comes to the famous, we “need to make sense of untimely death, and even justify it.” As Ledger joins the pantheon of stars who died too young—from Rudolph Valentino to James Dean to Marilyn Monroe—we’re again left to wonder why millions feel such sorrow when celebrities die.

Because we think we actually know them, said Joe Queenan in the London Guardian. “Ledger’s death illustrates the unusually intimate relationship the public has with movie stars.” There’s something about film that makes us feel warm and paternal about the people on the screen; we notice a Julia Roberts or a Cary Grant in their first movies, “monitor their progress, revel in their triumphs.” Ledger was just such an actor, and his soulful, “heartbreaking” performance as a gay cowboy in Brokeback Mountain fulfilled his promise. When such actors die before their time, the death “seems not only tragic but morally incorrect,” as if the “universe is not playing by the rules.”

Yet Ledger’s death, while sad, was not that shocking, said Phil Rosenthal in the Chicago Tribune. This is not meant as a commentary on Ledger but on “the state of celebrity” in 2008. “Just as the 24-hour news cycle sped up how events play out across the globe, the omnipresent and seemingly omniscient Internet-fueled gossip machine has seemed to speed up the lives of the rich and famous.” Without trying, we know about “their failings and frailties, their hookups and breakups,” their bouts with depression and their dalliances with drugs and alcohol. “If they burn bright and hot, we half expect them to flame out and crash to Earth.” So when another Hollywood story reaches its sad conclusion, “we pause but a moment to reflect on the tragedy as it pops up in our e-mail inbox, then get back to work.”

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