Celebrity afterlife

Film immortalizes more surely than human memory. This week sees the release of two films, each dealing with the life of dead people on whom we confer enduring fame. Diana, as we all know, is the already-panned biopic focusing on the last two years of the Princess’s life. Rush is about James Hunt, the F1 champion, who led an epically hedonistic life and died from a heart attack in 1993 at 45. Diana died in 1997 aged 36 after a road accident in Paris. But they both live on in the popular imagination, not in a morbid kind of way, but in a spirit of reverence and, in Diana’s case, adoration. We imagine Diana as everlastingly radiant, not as the 52-year-old she would have been had she lived. And, while Hunt would have been around the same age as Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie and Jeff Bridges – all still relevant figures, of course – we think of him as the rakishly handsome roué he was in the 1970s.

Diana and Hunt are not alone: our imaginations are full of famous figures who seem as real and relevant today as they did when they dominated the headlines. There are many, many more famous characters who we think about, not as historical figures, but as contemporary presences. “Our contact with celebrities is so limited that we view them as mirages until the one event that restores them their real physical presence, their deaths, the moment of our greatest intimacy with them,” writes the American scholar Daniel Harris in his 2008 essay “Celebrity deaths.” Harris’s argument is that the death of celebrities is “the ultimate democratic epiphany” in that, in a sudden moment of revelation, it their demise reminds us that, despite their status, they are “as liable to physical misfortunes as the best of us.”

The reaction to death serves to reinforce what Harris calls solidarity, by which I presume he means a unity or harmony that endures long after. Posthumous exposés may lay bare aspects of a celebrity’s life that may change our evaluations, but a dead person can’t actually do anything to alter a bond forged by death. Marilyn Monroe may have set a deplorable example of ostentation and promiscuity in the 1950s, but on her death she was beatified. Indeed, later revelations made her seem more a victim than she ever did in life. Elton John and Bernie Taupin memorably used T. H. White’s 1958 phrase “Candle in the wind” to capture her fragility in their 1973 song; they modified the lyric in 1997 to eulogize Princess Diana, who was also worshipped more in death than in life.

Norma Jeane Mortenson may have died, but Marilyn lived on, making hers the first death to lead to a renewal and, for this reason, the first celebrity death. (James Dean died earlier, in 1955, aged 24, and his image was borne on countless tee-shirts and posters. But his life was never probed and exhibited, and he was respected as much for the postwar rebellious spirit of youth he personified than himself.)

Wheeler Winston Dixon, a professor of film studies, observes how images of dead celebrities become frozen in time, surrounded with manufactured fantasies, immune from aging. The everlasting image of Marilyn, who like Diana, died aged 36 is of a lucent-eyed, smolderingly vivacious and affectingly shallow blonde. Her depths were plumbed only after her death. Hers was a death that guaranteed immortality. And there were others. Jimi Hendrix (1942-70), Elvis Presley (1935-77), John Lennon (1940-80) and Tupac Shakur (1971-96) were all sanctified in a secular sense. “Any negativity [about their lives] has long been digested by the popular culture – and they’ve stood the test of time,” writes historian Robert Klara.

Helping them stand the test are corporations with interests in resurrecting them via film, music and merchandise. Digital technologies have facilitated their appearance in advertising and, in the cases of Frank Sinatra (1915-98) on stage – in the form of a moving holographic image. All have been subjects of biopics, in Diana’s case several times over. Her death started a cycle of renewal as writers, film makers and corporations revived not just her image, but her existence in any exploitable form. Journalists Ross D. Petty and Denver D’Rozario have produced a cold-hearted analysis of the bonuses offered by departed: “Living celebrities are both expensive and risky … Deceased celebrities have the advantage of being both less expensive and less likely to suddenly lose popularity.”

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