When a celebrity dies it becomes both news and gossip. People want to know how? Why? Where? Who was there? What happened? However, a decade or two after their death, they are often forgotten. Their fans have moved on and the media is focused on the next big celebrity rise, fall or death. Yet, some do become iconic like Elvis Presley or Michael Jackson, whose memories will live on for many more decades. This article questions whether Heath Ledger’s legacy will live on, as we approach the 10-year anniversary of his death.
In 2016, it is was hard to mourn just one particular celebrity, as so many were lost that year including David Bowie, George Michael, Gene Wilder, Alan Thicke, Doris Roberts, Prince, Carrie Fisher, Alan Rickman, Florence Henderson, Mohamed Ali, and Debbie Reyolds. Many of these are either iconic people or played iconic characters, which will be remembered for years to come. However, it is difficult to know who will truly stand the test of time. And what role does the media play in the mourning and remembering of celebrities?
When River Phoenix died in 1993, the phone call made by his brother Joaquin was released to the media. Decades since his death, LA tour buses still point out the spot outside the building where he died. The Viper Room was previously owned by Johnny Depp, which adds to the intrigue of this devastating story. However, it is not simply a story. It is people’s real lives. So why is it talked about in the media as if it is a film? How is it ok, that a private call for help became public and discussed in the media? Is a celebrity’s public appearance meant to make it ok? Society’s morbid fascination has led to the media losing their ethics to some extent when it comes to celebrities, perhaps under the argument of public interest. But is that fair?
While River Phoenix is still remembered by many, I am certain many of my students do not know who he is. In fact, most of my students recognise Marilyn Monroe without having seen any of her films. Their associations with Monroe are solely based on her as a sex symbol. There is no knowledge of her talents or life. Thus, even if a celebrity lives on, it is often only a symbolic representation of their iconic brand. So what will the legend of Ledger be?
Reporting Ledger’s Death
Heath Ledger died in his New York apartment from an accidental drug overdose on January 22, 2008. Instantly, rumours began about his level of happiness, whether it was suicide, his drug dependence, why the masseuse who found him did not call the ambulance or police immediately, how Mary-Kate Olsen was involved and how his dark portrayal of The Joker may have contributed to his death. However, since then, his father Kim Ledger has openly spoken about his son’s death, stating the tragedy was the actor’s own fault and a horrible accident.
Perhaps rather than spreading rumours, the media should have been finding out the facts before reporting to the public. Instead, a sad situation was made worse by sensationalism. People often claim to not care about celebrities, yet there is clearly a fascination. We cannot blame the media completely, as the consumers themselves are the ones requesting immediate information. This immediacy has grown since Ledger’s death with social media demanding constant updates.
Twitter began to grow in popularity in 2009 and since then we have Instagram, Snapchat and other largely successful social media platforms. While celebrities use these apps to brand themselves today, it is also impacting the number of rumours that spread, as there is no longer control over media. For example, Paul Walker’s death was announced online a day before it actually happened, due to a hoax. This led to many rumours rotating on the day of his actual death, which were only put to rest when Walker’s representatives posted through his social media accounts a statement clarifying he was in fact killed in a car crash on November 30, 2013. Social media was used as a way for fans to mourn around the world. It is also used today to keep Walker’s memory alive. His Twitter account remains active, with his publicity team posting quotes and images of Walker. Therefore, while the media is responsible for the lack of facts and ethics, it is also depended on to help maintain a celebrity’s identity.
Now almost 10 years since Ledger’s death, his life and career are being celebrated, as they should. At the age of just 28, Ledger had managed to make a large influence on the world. Playing a controversial role in a homosexual romantic drama attracted a lot of positive and negative attention. For some, he was seen as a hero, while others hated him. Brokeback Mountain was a pivotal point in his career. As too was The Dark Knight, which lead to his posthumous Oscar win.
Ledger was more than just a talented actor. He helped form and promote Australia’s national identity to the world and put Perth on the map for certain people. Now, fans can join in celebrating his life and career through various means. Earlier this year, I Am Heath Ledger was released, not focusing on his death but sharing insight into his creativity and many skills. In October this year, there will be an exhibition opening in his honour titled, Heath Ledger: A Life In Pictures. Photographs, artworks, costumes, props and much more will be displayed. This exhibition will take place in his hometown of Perth – http://museum.wa.gov.au/museums/offsite/heath-ledger-life-pictures.
I am also chairing a conference in December in Perth, titled Bridging Gaps: National Identity in Persona, Branding and Activism – http://cmc-centre.com/conferences/2017perth/ At this conference we will have a panel discussing Heath Ledger’s iconic status and how he helped form Australia’s national identity.
Ledger’s memory is also kept alive in Perth through a monument at Heathcote Reserve, a theatre named after him in Northbridge and an acting scholarship offered to young creatives – http://www.australiansinfilm.org/HeathLedgerScholarship These initiatives are important in maintaining his brand identity and keeping future generations informed. Today, he is represented as a friendly, hard-working, passionate person. The documentary focused largely on his photography and directing skills, as well as his passion for chess. To most fans, he will probably be remembered for his role as The Joker. However, to keep his image alive globally, there is a reliance on media.
When celebrities die, the media mourns them for a day or maybe a week. After the truth behind their death is revealed they become old news. Thus, to maintain media interest and nurture a celebrity’s brand posthumously, their image must still be circulated, yet protected. As soon as a family member or friend says something about a deceased celebrity, this gives the media a chance to circulate a new story. Somehow, 20 years since Princess Diana’s death the media still finds new information to share. This helps to reconnect audiences. Thus, while the media is often seen as an enemy to the celebrities at the time of death, they are reliant on them long-term. The media also has the power to depict the celebrity in a particular way. Whether they celebrate the celebrity’s success or focus on negative rumours. Michael Jackson certainly had two sides to his brand, yet is remembered fondly by most for being an innovative singer and dancer. Ledger’s memory is relatively untarnished. His death was tragic and his persona is intact.
Whenever a celebrity dies young they are compared to James Dean, who died at the age of 24 in a car crash in 1955 having only starred in three films but remains the ultimate ‘rebel’. While it is doubtful that Heath Ledger would reach the same iconic status as Dean, there are varying levels of iconicity. Like Dean, Ledger is celebrated in his hometown but also remembered around the world. I personally hope Ledger’s image lives on for many more decades to come. He was an amazing talent, who proved that someone born in the most isolated city in the world could become a global name.