Saturday, January 26, 2008

Obituary: Heathcliff Andrew Ledger

Celebrity deaths are great news for media, and not just the celebrity paparazzi rags. The only thing wrong with the mysterious death of a young, moderately talented, and fairly good-looking actor is that there isn’t an infinite amount of reportable information. Eventually it dries up and the guy is buried, literally and figuratively.

Gawker has this "examination of 100 recent headlines on Google News, categorized by the angle on the Australian actor's mysterious demise."

“It’s like River Phoenix all over again,” a friend in California texted me. We were joking around about the media circus. Which is a sign of good mental health for the average American: to be cynical and unmoved by the death, or to feel it profoundly?

I was walking around SoHo last week with a co-worker when I asked her if we should check out the Heath Ledger Death Apartment. She looked up the address on Wikipedia with her mobile phone, and we were off.

As we stood in front of 421 Broome Street, gawking at the pile of letters and flowers, I held up my camera-phone for the photo-op. I looked around. The density of the crowd was deceptive. Most of it was police barriers and camera equipment that spilled over into the street. And I wasn't the only one snapping pictures with a camera-phone. The crowd was quiet, and surprisingly respectful. As I was about to mutter something sarcastic to my co-worker, I heard a man, an adult, say something quiet to his companion about what a good actor Ledger was, as if that justified their visit to the site.

So why were we there? The spectacle, we agreed. All respect for the dead aside, this was a modern popular cultural moment. We wanted to see the pile of letters. How, in this day and age, we marveled, could anyone get so attached to an actor that they would write a heart-felt letter to the actor or his family?

We wanted to see the cameras. There were news vans from all the local stations staked out there. We wondered why. Would anyone close to the actor actually show up at the apartment?

If this were a movie, a Maybach with blacked-out windows would pull up with Michelle Williams and son. The window would roll down about an inch, hesitate, and then go down another inch and pause and then go up. The car would sit just long enough for the cameras to turn around before the car sped off. And the crowd that saw it would dissect the movements of the window as if it were an expression on a face, because that’s all they had to go on.

But it is a kind of movie scenario when our media treats actors' lives like performances, and we visited the Heath Ledger Death Apartment as we would have the site of a film shoot.

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