Tag Archives: Princess Diana

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.”

Diana’s death fascinates us as much as her life

Princess Diana

Sixteen years after her death, Diana, Princess of Wales, continues to enchant us. A new claim that the Special Air Service (SAS) was involved in her death is being investigated by the Metropolitan Police. In the immediate aftermath of the fateful night of August 31, 1997, everyone struggled to make sense of arguably the most devastating death of the century. The shock and prolonged sense of grief occasioned by Diana’s utterly unexpected death has scarcely a parallel in world events. The deaths of social and political giants such as John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and cultural icons like John Lennon and Michael Jackson, stunned people the world over. But none of these evoked an emotional response so long and deep as that following Diana’s death.

The response to Diana’s death defined an emblematic moment, one of transferred emotion. In the days leading to her funeral on September 6, over a million people flocked to pay their last respects, many leaving bouquets at her London home at Kensington Palace. Her funeral attracted three million mourners who cast flowers along the entire length of the journey. A global television audience of twenty six million watched the day’s events.

The near-inevitable conspiracy theories surrounding the death were like those about the moon landing, the JFK assassination or 9/11. More rational attributions of blame centered on paparazzi, who pursued her into the tunnel in Paris on that fateful night. “I always believed the press would kill her in the end,” said Diana’s brother, the Earl of Spencer. “Every proprietor and editor of every publication that has paid for intrusive and exploitative photographs of her, encouraging greedy and ruthless individuals to risk everything in pursuit of Diana’s image, has blood on his hands.”

Few wanted to extend that same argument further. If they had, they would have concluded that the paparazzi were motivated by money offered by media corporations that could sell publications in their millions to consumers whose thirst for pictures and stories of Diana seemed unquenchable. In the event, the photographers were cleared of any wrongdoing by a French court in 1999. The fact remains: all parties, from the paparazzi to the fans were connected as if by invisible thread.

Anyone who was aware of Diana — and it’s difficult to imagine anyone who wasn’t — was forced to think about the way in which news values had been subverted by entertainment values. After all, Diana’s greatest triumph was not so much in ushering in world peace, or saving the planet, but in offering so pleasure to so many people. Yet the inspection was momentary. It didn’t bring to an end the gathering interest in figures, who, like Diana, offered pleasure while presenting absolutely nothing that would materially alter their lives or the lives of any other living thing. Then, after a spell of critical evaluation of the media, the interest resumed and theories of skullduggery, connivance and subterfuge began to circulate. It took ten years before an official investigation lasting nearly two years concluded the death had been an accident and there was “no conspiracy to murder the occupants of that car.

Now police are investigating a fresh claim that the SAS was involved in Diana’s death. Like the other theories, this one appears to lack that all-important constituent of a credible theory – evidence. So you might wonder why the latest one has prompted action from Scotland Yard. “The Metropolitan Police Service is scoping information that has recently received,” is the official response. “Scoping” is an unusual choice of verbs: it’s typically used informally for looking at, or scanning something or someone. But the meaning is clear enough: the Yard is taking this seriously enough to look into it.

A few people will suggest a different kind of conspiracy: a new film Diana is shortly to be released to coincide with the anniversary of the Princess’s death. A new theory is bound to be good boxoffice. But it could be just an astonishing coincidence. I suspect this will not be the last theory of this kind we will hear. Diana’s death, like her life, is a subject of endless intrigue. Her singular capacity to lure, charm and draw people of diverse backgrounds has survived her and will probably outlive anyone reading this.