It’s time to stop the canonization of Heath Ledger. He’s not a tragic hero. He’s not a beautiful martyr. He’s just a pretty good actor who did away with himself and broke the hearts of his family and friends, and he shouldn’t get an Academy Award to memorialize his death.
Ledger’s brief career culminated in his portrayal of the Joker in “The Dark Knight,” a role that at first seems compelling (“mesmerizing,” critics have fawned) but ultimately devolves into a can-can dance of snuffling pseudo-psychopathia. It has all the subtlety of a hangover -- exactly what I’d expect from someone who headed home every night to a pill party. Still, “The Dark Knight” has soared to unprecedented success, and Ledger’s name is mentioned incessantly for an Oscar.
The current mania joins Ledger to a long line of creative figures who committed the ultimate failure and are, unfortunately, all the more famous for it: Dylan Thomas, Hank Williams, Jackson Pollock, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, John Belushi, Janis Joplin. Some drank themselves to death, some overdosed, some ran their cars off the road. As the saying goes in AA, the stories are the same, only the details are different.
“I want to live fast, love hard, die young, and leave a beautiful memory,” Faron Young sang in a 1955 hit, unwittingly encapsulating this fatal phenomenon. People of every walk of life die from drugs and alcohol, but only a celebrity’s death gets so heated in a devil’s crucible of public sentiment that it is transformed into posthumous glory. And such adulation begets a mass social hysteria that continues the cycle.
The preeminent example is the deification of Hendrix. How many young men pick up a guitar to emulate him, and wind up under a bridge with a bottle of Colt 45 picking out a wobbly solo on a tinny set of strings? I see them every day in downtown Seattle.
Hendrix worship inspired billionaire Paul Allen to build a museum: Seattle’s Experience Music Project. An exhibit there explains how Hendrix created his unique sound but equivocates his death in an utterly irresponsible fashion: “Hendrix’s creative journey was cut short by an accidental overdose of sleeping pills.” (Nine sleeping pills, accompanied by barrels of wine; he choked to death in his own vomit.) The Hendrix monument at a cemetery south of Seattle says nothing at all about his death. It’s as if the angels just took him away to the big amplifier pile in the sky.
In all the posthumous swooning over Ledger, I read repeatedly how his death, too, was “accidental.” But the medical examiner’s toxicology report listed a bucket of addictive, mood-altering substances in his body, from antihistamines to Xanax. None of them got there by accident.
After Ledger died in January, one distraught fan posted on the Internet that he “will go down alongside James Dean and River Phoenix as great talents who were so cruelly taken away just as they started to show how damn good they were!” But these guys weren’t “taken away.” Phoenix OD’d on cocaine and heroin. Dean died in a car crash after a short, fast life of drugs and alcohol. They took themselves away. It’s a simple thing to find help for drug and alcohol abuse these days. Millions have done it, including me, and though not easy, it represents the only way to live with the integrity we owe ourselves, our families and the world around us.
Last year, I visited the hamlet in Wales through which poet Dylan Thomas caroused. At an inn from which he was evicted (for stealing beer), I learned that down the street lived an old lady who had known him. Go knock on her door, I was urged. So I did. Gladys didn’t hear so well, but when I finally conveyed the idea that I was curious about Dylan Thomas, she laughed and said, “Well, he was just a common drunk, wasn’t he?”
I could say the same of Ledger.
Film critic Ty Burr, trying to untangle this heady mix of big box office and public mourning, wrote, “This is less about hype than about the gentle madness of crowds.” Nothing gentle about it: Each year more than 100,000 Americans die of alcohol or drug abuse. It would be madness to commemorate one such death with the greatest honor in cinema. Please give the Academy Award to someone who’s had the courage to stick around.