Not Exactly an ObituaryFebruary 18, 2007
I was surprised by the saturation media coverage associated with the death of Anna Nicole Smith, and not just by the tabloid TV shows/journals but by the "major" news outlets. What should have been relegated to a back-page footnote or a one-column write-up on the Obituaries page turned into the biggest non-story of the new year. What remains to be seen, however, is whether the story has legs. One year from now, will anyone remember who ANS was? Dying young can have advantages when it comes to establishing a legacy, but for that to happen, the basis for the legacy must exist.
ANS was famous for being famous. She couldn't act, sing, or dance. She had no discernable talent other than being able to seduce men. One is tempted to spout the quote "live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse" in association with her. Although she lived fast and died young, the part about the beautiful corpse is debatable. When she first came into the public spotlight via Playboy (before she turned into a living self-parody), she was a pretty young thing. The past 15 years were hard on her. The allure, sex appeal, and seductiveness were gone by the time the curtain fell on her life.
I have a theory about why the likes of ANS garner so much attention. It's not because people are envious or dazzled or even fascinated. It's because we gain a perverse enjoyment from watching train wrecks and fiery car crashes. The Tabloid Princesses (ANS, Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears, etc.) give us a chance to observe the human equivalent. We can look at these celebrities and murmur, "Thank God I'm not them." There's something delicious about watching someone in the spotlight disintegrate spectacularly. But will any of these people be remembered after they're gone? What has ANS left behind to cherish, except for some bad film appearances, a failed TV reality show, and a lot of naked pictures?
For some famous people, death has been a spectacular career move. James Dean may be the most striking example. How much of his legend is based on what he accomplished in his short screen career, and how much is based on the fact that his life came to a brutal premature end? Had Dean lived and experienced a long acting career, would his name be as widely known? Would Rebel without a Cause have become a classic rather than just a sensation at the time it arrived in theaters? These answers are unknowable, but few would argue that Dean's death is one of the cornerstones of his mystique.
In the mid 1970s, Elvis Presley was the once and future King of Rock 'N Roll. At the time of his ignominious death, he was a strung-out lounge singer - a bloated parody of his once virile self who used drugs to get through each day. Death changed all that. With his passing, Elvis attained an immortality that would have been unthinkable to anyone watching one of his later-year concerts. Three decades post mortem, Elvis is all about the music and the image we have of him isn't that of an overweight has-been dead on a toilet.
Of all the great "What ifs?" in recent history, one that ranks near the top is how the world would have changed had JFK survived Dallas. At the time of his assassination, Kennedy had a spotty track record as president. History remembers his administration primarily for four things: the sense of optimism and hope for the future he brought to the Oval Office, the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the stoking of the fires in Vietnam. But what is JFK best known for? November 22, 1963. Had he lived to a ripe old age, Kennedy would never have been merely an historical footnote, but by dying in office the way he did, his reputation was elevated to near-sainthood. Even posthumous revelations about infidelities and indiscretions did little to tarnish the image. Untimely death chased away the shadows around JFK and left behind something bright and shiny.
Perhaps the most appropriate analog to ANS is Marilyn Monroe, who flirted with a president, married a national hero and a famous playwright, and became a major movie star. Like ANS, she posed for Playboy and lived in the spotlight. In her heyday, she was luminous. At the end, she was... less than that. Some claim her death was murder but suicide is a better bet. In any case, premature death revived Monroe's sexpot image, blurring the downward spiral into which her life and career had gone. There are numerous parallels between her and ANS, but one striking difference. Monroe left behind a respectable body of film work. Some of her movies (such as Some Like It Hot) are viewed as classics. No such claim can be made about ANS.
One senses that ANS will be in death what she was in life: a flashy, insubstantial diversion that is quickly forgotten. Tabloid aficionados lose interest and once the cause of death has been determined, she will disappear from the headlines. With nothing substantive by which to remember her, she will be largely forgotten. 20 years from now, people will still know the names of James Dean, Elvis Presley, JFK, Marilyn Monroe, and the dozens of others I could have added to that list, but it's unlikely that anyone except trivia experts will know anything about the woman who went by the moniker of Anna Nicole Smith.
Play it Again, Sam
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