License to Cry: Why Corey Haim’s death matters (sort of)

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The death of Corey Haim earlier this week didn’t register high even on the meters of the celebrity- and tragedy-obsessed tabloid media. Corey Feldman appeared on ‘Larry King Live,’ a few commentators intoned a few serious-sounding things about the dangers of getting too famous too fast in Hollywood, and that was that.


But for a certain age group -- many of us in our thirties, and maybe a year or two in either direction -- the actor’s apparent accidental overdose resonated more deeply. When the news first broke on Wednesday morning, there rippled across Twitter accounts and Facebook pages a sense of loss and even surprise.

It wasn’t that Haim’s death was, on most rational levels, a shock, or that we thought about him in life as much more than a passing trivia question -- ask us about him a day before he died and our eyes would have lit up with recognition while a quick joke about him and Feldman might have passed our lips, but that would have pretty much been it. Still, many of us were struck by the fact that we could be here again, watching someone we loved so unquestioningly as kids come to such a hard-bitten adult end. We saw in Haim, for all his campiness, his modest theatrical output and -- let’s face it -- his less-than-abundant acting skills, a reflection of much that mattered to us back then, an era that seemed like one of such worldliness but in retrospect was, both for us and for celebrity-dom as a whole, one of such unadorned innocence.
I can’t speak to what someone who came of age in the1960s or 1970s might have felt when experiencing the untimely end of someone famous from their youth. But it strikes me that before the mid-'80s (commenters and fans of ‘One Day at a Time,’ feel free to disagree) there was less blind affection for a personality simply because they were famous and because all of one’s friends liked them, and so in turn less of a reflexive wince when hearing that personality had come upon hard times.

A new generation’s interaction with youth-oriented celebrities, by the same token, also doesn’t feel comparable. Young people these days have a different relationship with their pinup idols. They are just as preoccupied as we 30-somethings were with the youth-skewing stars of our day, perhaps more so. But they know these stars more intimately and hold fewer illusions about them. To be 18 and love a celebrity these days is to tear them down as much as it is to build them up, to engage in the complicated to-and-fro of love, hate and eye-rolling. If one of the current-day Hollywood bad-boys or bad-girls would tragically die, the reaction, while equally potent, would be far more emotionally guarded.
My generation’s feeling for Corey Haim, on the other hand, was -- as it was with other personalities from the time -- simpler and, as a result, more permanent. Even if we were aware of the silliness of the whole enterprise, as we certainly were with Haim, we also relished and took seriously their every career development and on-screen role -- in Haim’s case, the serious ‘Lucas,’ the darkly affecting ‘Lost Boys’ (a kind of ‘Twilight’ for young males of that time, only a lot better) and the freewheeling silliness of ‘License to Drive,’ which to this day I still can’t believe was actually a hit).

We didn’t really know much about Haim personally except that he was troubled (and even that came later). And so, at that age when one needs a sports or a movie star to identify with and there was no TMZ or US Weekly to warn us otherwise, Haim and his counterparts fit the bill nicely.

It’s eerie that the actor’s death came just three days after we were reminded of that period, not only of American pop culture but of our own lives, via the tribute to John Hughes at the Oscars. With roles like Ferris Bueller and John Bender, and in the lives of Molly Ringwald and Corey Haim, we first learned about a larger world even as it seemed these people were speaking directly to us. Most of us who grew up in that world of the 1980s indeed won’t forget about them, not because their legend was that shiny, their mark that indelible or their work even that great, but because our affection for them was once so uncomplicated.

-- Steven Zeitchik