This is an excerpt from “Gods Like Us: On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame,” published this week by Pantheon Books.
Whenever I visit Los Angeles, I make a point of dropping into Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery, just to see how everyone’s doing. It’s tucked behind Wilshire Boulevard three-quarters of the way along that street’s long march from downtown LA to the sea, a pocket-size burial ground in a lot that could be the footprint of a good-size office building. The place doesn’t announce itself as does, say, Grauman’s Chinese Theater, 7½ miles to the northeast. Grauman’s has the handprints and footprints of the stars preserved in concrete — proof they once walked among us. Westwood Village just has the bones, remnants of people who have stopped being stars. I visit anyway, as do others. At any given time, there are four or five of us silently walking around.
Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau are both here, though not bickering side by side as the 10 movies in which they costarred would make one hope. Lemmon lies near his great director Billy Wilder, though, and right next to Carroll O’Connor, whose TV character, bigoted Archie Bunker, lives on even as the politically left-wing actor who portrayed him molders. Pop Caruso Roy Orbison is buried here, close to the unmarked grave of rock polymath Frank Zappa. Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck lies too far from Natalie Wood to make a pass.
The cemetery, in fact, represents a final collapsing of the hierarchy of fame, with murdered actress-model Dorothy Stratten buried near Beach Boy Carl Wilson, whose remains are near strapping movie idol Burt Lancaster, who’s not far from tart character actress Eve Arden, who’s catty-corner from historians Will and Ariel Durant. In a corner by the entrance, maverick actor-director John Cassavetes, author Truman Capote, chicken-necked comedian Don Knotts, industrialist Armand Hammer, “Green Acres” star Eva Gabor, child actress Heather “They’re heeere” O’Rourke, and singer Mel “the Velvet Fog” Torme all cluster together, as if they were comparing notes during a coffee break from celebrity.
No, that’s a pointless metaphor. They’re just dead. So is Marilyn Monroe, who’s in Crypt 24 in the Corridor of Memories, second vault up in the corner of a wall of interment slots in the northeast section. When her ex-husband Joe DiMaggio was alive, he arranged for flowers to be delivered weekly to the gravesite, and every time I come to Westwood Memorial there are fresh roses left by one admirer or another. Monroe’s death and the industry surrounding it spill over to the Internet: Her page on the “Find a Grave” website has 14,000 digital “flowers” and notes posted by fans. By contrast, the Durants have a combined 78. Unlike Marilyn, they never let the wind from a subway grating blow their skirts up, or maybe slept with a president, or died young and beautiful, which is the only way to ensure that fame lasts forever, or what we want to believe is forever.
Star death represents a functional paradox. It immortalizes figures we have already assumed are bigger than life, and it does so by proving without a shred of doubt that the people in question are, in fact, mortal. But isn’t that how it should work in the metaphysics of fame, since the human being, the thing that can die, is always secondary to the image he or she projects? When the persona is what we cling to, the person who created it becomes dispensable.
This is especially true for stars who have naturally aged past their most potent popular image — who have, in essence, retired behind the public scrim of themselves. When James Stewart died in 1997, at 89, or Katharine Hepburn in 2003, at 96, the mourning was genteel and accompanied by clips from “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “Adam’s Rib,” freezing the icons at their peak moment of accessibility. The obituaries and public conversations surrounding timely movie star deaths work as summings-up, final assessments of worth before the dirt hits the cultural coffin lid.
Stars who outlive their glamour but are still working when disease or accident or a bad heart takes them off prompt a different sort of public mourning, one that acknowledges the whims and cruelties of fate. A long battle with cancer — Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Zappa, Dennis Hopper — gilds a persona with the tragic nobility of suffering and the honor of fighting a good fight. Conversely, what the British so piquantly call “death by misadventure” can taint a star’s image in perpetuity. William Holden drunkenly hitting his head on a coffee table and bleeding to death, David Carradine dying in a Bangkok hotel closet of autoerotic asphyxiation, 1960s sitcom star Bob Crane murdered in mysterious sexual circumstances, Sam Cooke shot dead with no pants on by a motel manager, and so on up the chain of escalating misfortune — these deaths alter who we think these stars are by introducing a note of unfiltered reality, the secret no one really wanted to know. Because they couldn’t control that secret, the stars’ images are subsequently revised to include personal weakness, but in truth we downgrade them for letting the mask slip and giving the game away — by reminding us they’re flawed and human. Crane’s redefining was so drastic that in death he became an altogether different kind of star, one doomed by his sex addiction, and so served as a cautionary tale in the 2002 biopic “Auto Focus.”
The dead stars who matter most, of course, are the interrupted. Those who die in youth by their own devices or at the hand of cruel, uncaring fate we solemnize only in hindsight. James Dean racing his career into a head-on collision at 24. Rudolph Valentino succumbing at 31 to appendicitis and gastric ulcers and peritonitis and an infected lung, the public mania around his funeral attempting to make up for the dull medical catastrophe of his death. Marilyn Monroe, at 36, ending her love-hate relationship with fame by swallowing pills — or was it murder, and was it the CIA?
Star death saves careers by immobilizing them, preventing an actor from aging out of his or her primary persona. Whether or not they would have moved on to more interesting work once they were free of bondage to our expectations becomes a moot point. If Dean had lived, would he have kept following Marlon Brando into self-pity and bloat? Or would he still be lithe and crazy and creative — just an older version, without the dreams of millions of kids propping him up? Would the drugs have gotten him as they did his “Rebel Without a Cause” costar Hopper, and would he have come out the other side? Would he be a grand old man of indie movies or just another “Celebrity Apprentice”? It’s immaterial. Death spared Dean the “problem” of turning ordinary, froze the persona in mid-stride, and gave us someone to worship forever.
What would Monroe have made of the cultural and cinematic freedoms of the late 1960s? Would she have flowered or fled? One can see her working happily with the Scorseses and Coppolas of the New Hollywood, and one can just as easily imagine her holed up out of sight like a latter-day Mary Pickford.
One thing is certain: Marilyn’s role as the premiere Dead Star of the 20th century made her more commercially and culturally successful than ever. In life, she was mocked: Journalists looked down on her, women sharpened their claws, men leered. Death not only ennobled Monroe but also exposed and codified the culture’s mistake in not seeing the sensitive, unhappy woman behind the pneumatic facade. The current pop attitude is that we all wronged her by perceiving her wrongly, so it is up to us to atone for our sin by renting her movies and growing misty when Elton John sings “Candle in the Wind” (so powerful a work of public keening that it was later retooled for Princess Diana). If you direct your Web browser to MarilynMonroe.com, you will find that it is the site of the late actress’s licensing resource center. In 2004, according to Forbes magazine, Monroe’s estate made $8 million.
Which, honestly, is a pittance compared to what a dead star can earn. Per Forbes, the Elvis Presley estate made $55 million in 2009; during the same period, the still-living Britney Spears made only $35 million. And when a star’s death hits every major cultural pressure point on the spectrum, the response can be as profitable as it is emotional. Michael Jackson made $90 million in the four months following his death, in June 2009. Early the following year, Sony paid the singer’s estate $250 million for the right to distribute his music until 2017, the highest contracted amount in history for a single artist, alive or dead.
Ironically, Jackson had spent the better part of the previous decade plagued by financial problems, but he had settled his debts and was gearing up for a concert tour that had already broken sales records. After 2½ decades of ongoing public eccentricity, Jackson seemed poised for a grand reinvention — a major comeback and full-scale reassessment of his cultural worth.
Instead, he died. His personal physician gave the singer the wrong cocktail of medications, Jackson had a heart attack, and he died. Because his passing combined more than the usual number of prerequisites necessary for a major pop event, what ensued was amplified beyond any previous scale. For one thing, the singer’s death almost literally ground the Internet to a halt. Twitter and Wikipedia both crashed. Google executives were convinced that the tidal wave of searches under Jackson’s name meant the site was under attack. Gossip sites like TMZ.com and PerezHilton.com went dark, their servers overwhelmed; mainstream news websites slowed to a crawl under the traffic. Presidents of countries around the world released statements of national mourning. The memorial service at LA’s Staples Center a week after Jackson’s death was broadcast live and watched by an estimated global audience of 1 billion.
Here’s a heretical question: why? Who or what are we grieving for when a famous person dies? Why did people who a day earlier would have been making Michael Jackson pedophilia jokes suddenly listen to “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” with tears of nostalgia?
A number of reasons present themselves. A star’s death allows us to gather communally around his or her best moments and around what those moments mean to us, as a culture and as people. It lets us create a final narrative of his or her life in which the suspense of not knowing what’s coming next — comeback or nosedive — is resolved. We like emotional catharsis and don’t much care where it comes from. Or we’re mourning a part of ourselves that once believed in the innocence of a pop song or a movie — their power to elevate and define our lives.
When we grieve for dead stars, we’re doing it for us more than for them. As a public and as individuals, we engage in a complicated process in which persona is reinvented one final time, without the star’s consent but with several factors crucial to sustaining it (and us) over the long haul: narrative closure, assigned meaning, a tragic dimension, the self-flagellation of the audience. All the resentful ill will that surrounded dead stars while they lived — and sneers had been directed at Jackson, Monroe, John Lennon, and the rest for various perceived sins against their paying customers — dissolves in a bath of sentiment and licensed consumerism.
Is it possible to genuinely mourn a person we never personally knew? Of course not. But it’s possible to feel good about feeling sad, and to use a star’s death as a way to remind ourselves we’re still alive. In public mourning and remembrance, there is always the power of the survivor, whether it’s expressed by watching with the rest of the planet as a pop singer is laid to rest, by signing a digital memory book on a website, or by walking through a quiet Hollywood cemetery while the star factory hums on in office buildings and bungalows a few blocks away. We’re still here. The gods lost. We won.
This Thursday Ty Burr reads from “Gods Like Us” at the Coolidge Corner Theatre at 6 p.m., followed by a reception and book signing at Brookline Booksmith.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.