Not an Obituary

January 24, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

Since Heath Ledger's tragic death on Tuesday evening, I have received numerous e-mail queries about whether I am planning to write something about him. The short answer is "no." There's a simple reason for that: anything I might have to contribute has already been written elsewhere, probably more than once. I'm not against writing obituaries in principle, but for me to commit one to paper, there has to be something unique I can add. With Ledger, as with most celebrities, that's not the case.

A relationship is a good place to start. If a journalist knows a celebrity, either personally or professionally, chances are (s)he has a perspective to present that will set his/her obituary apart from all the recycled ones making their way around the world. I know Ledger only through his work. I have never met him nor do I have a close relationship with anyone who knows him well. So any obituary I wrote would read like a clone of the A.P. one.

I could write about his acting in general terms, but that would result in the piece sounding like a cobbled-together string of clichés. Yes, it's tragic that he died at such a young age. Yes, he was a promising young actor. Yes, it's sad that he won't make any more movies. Yes, he made an indelible impression upon many people with his work in Brokeback Mountain. But all those are obvious statements and, while it's true that I sometimes resort to clichés and obviousness, I try not to embrace those characteristics in my writing.

Ledger's death doesn't touch me personally. A member of my family died about 24 hours before him. That had an impact upon me. That opened up a hole that will eventually close but will take some time. Compared to that, Ledger is a footnote. I feel for his friends and family. I am, however, less sympathetic where his fans are concerned. I don't doubt the genuineness of their grief but I have never understood how the passing of a public personality can cause the same outpouring of tears and pain that the passing of a loved one can. Few fans know the man; they know his characters, and those will endure for a long time. In the grand scheme of things, Ledger's death is no more tragic than that of an unknown 28-year old flagman who was hit and killed by a careless driver speeding through a construction zone. When it comes to celebrities, one can acknowledge the loss without shedding a tear. I save my tears for those who are close to me.

Something else I find unseemly - bordering on reprehensible - is the media's fervent desire to track down Ledger's family to obtain pictures and quotes. This is especially unforgivable in the case of Michelle Williams and her daughter. She should be given space and time to mourn. Let her make a statement when she's ready. Don't force her into hiding. The paparazzi are leeches, but those who feed on tabloids and tabloid TV (and ultimately pay their checks) are no less parasitic. One or two degrees of removal does not absolve responsibility. Having occasionally watched episodes of Entertainment Tonight, I must admit my own culpability.

"What's wrong with Entertainment Tonight?" you may ask. Nothing, if you like vapid, pointless television that mingles marketing hype with bottom-feeding obsessing over celebrities. Since he began his association with the show, I have lost a lion's share of my respect for Leonard Maltin. (E.T., it should be noted, pimps his name without ever calling upon his vast wellspring of knowledge. He must be well-paid to accept this kind of gig.) I recall watching an episode around the time of the release of The Da Vinci Code in which Mary Hart must have mentioned "an E.T. exclusive" (about a train ride with the stars to Cannes, where the movies was being premiered) ten times. These shows are so desperate to trump one another that they'll air any garbage. It's time for me to make PBS' Newshour my dinner background noise.

Admittedly, this has taken me far afield of my original topic, but it is germane. I believe that everyone - celebrities and their friends/relatives - has a right to privacy in the face of a tragedy and it should be their decision, not the media's, if and when they wish to face the cameras to discuss it. As for obituaries, there are a few I will write, but I won't commit something to paper unless there's a compelling reason for me to do so. That's not the case here.

Rest in Peace, Mr. Ledger, and may the media give some consideration to those you have left behind. Hopefully, your passing from this world will not be the opening of a gateway to their private hell.