Star burns bright, out

Star burns bright, out

Tom Plate wonders about the celebrity culture that may have led to Australian actor Heath Ledger's untimely death

By Tom Plate
Pacific Perspectives Columnist

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Beverly Hills, California ---- Lots of friends of mine in Asia and Europe worry to death when they send their sons and daughters over to the United States to work or to study. Like me, they love America, especially its higher-education culture. But they chafe about our values and our overall direction.

They are not entirely wrong to have such fears.

America's deteriorating economy and volatile stock market are not the only credible indices of troubles in paradise. The brutish -- and short -- life of some of our celebrities is now becoming another leading measure of societal un-health.

Look at the sagas of supermodel Anna Nicole Smith, pop princess Britney Spears, cinema celebrity Owen Wilson and superstar skater Scotty Bowman. Just as Pakistan and other countries in South Asia make a fetish of destroying its political figures, the United States takes a back seat to no one in seeing its pop culture icons -- in one way or the other -- destroy themselves.

The death of Australian-born Health Ledger is a truly tragic story. At the ripe age of 28, this Hollywood star had almost everything America can offer someone -- fame, fortune, a brilliant career. Now Ledger -- most notably, co-star of Brokeback Mountain (2005) -- is dead, apparently of some kind of prescription drug overdose.

Ledger had been a rising star even back in his teen years. Yet, like so many in America, his fate was to have gathered up too much wealth and fame so soon. All that success gave him the money to buy pretty much whatever he wanted, including, perhaps, prescriptions for whatever drugs he required.

In the end, it would seem, those chemicals, self-consumed, appear to have consumed what was left of his life, whether or not his death is to be officially ruled a deliberate suicide.

Moral decay is a trite and shopworn theme, to be sure. Yet here is yet another premature celebrity death that follows the pattern of self-destruction suggested above --- Smith, Spears, Wilson, Bowman, etc. Hollywood is a particularly, deeply weird place, no doubt about it. Paparazzi -- those lascivious, pixilated locusts of our landscape -- show no tender mercies toward those whose professionally photographed images then transform them into false idols.

Celebrity itself is incredible -- that is to say, it is unreal. But once you have become one in this culture, you are forever more nothing else.

Immediately after Ledger's death, I asked a well-known former child actor about Ledger and his world. "It is so sad, a young man, a father," she said. "Something is wrong here. You know, in my day we had some paparazzi -- but nothing like this." Ledger had one child born out of wedlock. To his great credit, the actor was a devoted father.

The views expressed above are those of the author and are not necessarily those of AsiaMedia or the UCLA Asia Institute.