Heath Ledger: The Next James Dean?


heath_ledgerA few years back, Forbes.com noted with tongue only slightly in cheek that "[o]ne might not think of death as an optimal career move, but for some celebrities, crossing over to the far side doesn't hurt their income in the least."

For example, last year, the estate of George Harrison earned $22 million, while Charles M. Schulz's scored $35 million. As for Yoko's John, he raked in $44 million; however, Elvis was the top Hound Dog among deceased earners with $49 million.

As for poor Marilyn Monroe, the blonde goddess was slightly knocked off her pedestal, being out-earned by Tupac Shakur, who has now released more CDs post burial than pre. (One does wonder whether Shakespeare would give this group a run for their moolah. Try tracking the Bard, Forbes.)

As capitalistic and cruel as the above all sounds, money here is indeed a measure of lasting love. The pain that the stars' early deaths caused their fan base can apparently be assuaged quite a bit by the purchase of their image on posters, their recordings, or in the case of Elvis, visiting his home where he often pigged out.

So does Heath Ledger in memoriam have the lasting power of a James Dean, who made decidedly fewer films?

Well, there's no doubt Brokeback Mountain is to homosexuals and single women what Rebel Without a Cause once was to rebellious adolescents. And then there's 10 Things I Hate About You. In this adaptation of Taming of the Shrew, Heath gets to spout, "Hey! Don't say shit like that to me. People can hear you" in response to David Krumholtz's "Sweet love, renew thy force."

Yes, teen girls still swoon to the memory of Heath's first mall hit. Just ask Gabrielle Segal, 16, who was visibly distraught at John's Pizzeria on West 44th Street on the very night Heath's death made it onto CNN. 10 Things had struck a nerve with her, she admitted.

Of course, much of Heath's staying power will no doubt depend on the upcoming release of The Dark Knight later this year and the media's take on his embodiment of The Joker. Or maybe not.

Maybe his possible death by Ambien or whatever has already made him a legend. To decide, CultureCatch.com interviewed a bevy of tastemakers—mostly college students on either side of 20—on what the heartthrob's chances on immortality are.

"I was an avid Heath Ledger fan and I still am," said Sadozai Malik, a Macaulay Honors College fixture. "He had me under his spell (as he did with many girls my age) from the moment I saw him in 10 Things. It would take a very strong woman to have resisted those brooding eyes and that sly, pursed smile. Today those same eyes seem infinitely sadder as I watch the images of the now deceased actor splashed in the media. Perhaps it is my own heartache reflected back at me that I see. As the days go by, my thoughts are with his friends and family who are obviously going through a very difficult time, and I reflect on the great sorrow that we will never truly know the full potential of this young star, whose light was extinguished far too soon."

Best Buy employee and future baker Laura Moya shared, "While I don't doubt that Heath was a talented actor (more talented than a whole lot of people who still have careers in film), I doubt he'll make legendary status for the simple reason that movies don't create legends the way that they did fifty years ago. Which is why nobody in Hollywood is ever referred to as a screen legend unless they also qualify for social security. He'll likely be remembered the same way River Phoenix is, and his name will always be followed by a sigh and a "Man, he was a good actor; it's a shame he died so young," But nobody will refer to his performance in 10 Things as 'legendary.'" (play clip)

"I was not a huge fan (i.e. I never thought about him outside of a film)," yoga instructor Gillian Grude admitted, "but I was a fan of his work when I saw it. I feel like people are making him out to be more legendary then he was with so much media about the issue. But I think that's just because we didn't expect a non-party boy to end up dead like that, and there is nothing else as interesting to talk about. But on a personal level, it shocked me a little bit when I heard it because he was not the usual crazy celebrity you'd expect toOD but a sweet, very young dad. This made me sad, that he was a father, who would have really wanted to stick around for more of his daughter's life."

"We must recognize the fact that Heath Ledger was mainly known for his acting career," CCNY student Townes Wang put forth. "We must also understand that new stars and talented actors are constantly being discovered. While I am not saying he can be replaced, it is inevitable that attention will drift elsewhere after his death. Sure, Heath's death is attracting a lot of publicity, but eventually the gossip will die down and people will move on. For these reasons, he will not become a legend, not because of a lack of talent, but rather simply because he did not have enough time to make his mark on the world (or on Hollywood) due to his relatively short career."

Chiming in in disagreement from the same campus was Michael Luboa: "Heath Ledger will definitely be remembered for bravely taking on the role of a gay cowboy. And, although I'm not one to actively follow Hollywood celebrity news, I take it he was one of the better, down-to-earth celebrities. Dying at such a young age only adds to the tragedy of his death, terrible enough as it was."

"I predict that his role as the Joker in the new Batman movie will be a sort of posthumous phenomenon. Everyone will want to see his last work," piped in CCNY's Jean Metauten.

No way will he "become a legend" was Chloé Fischbach's response. "His name is not nearly as recognizable as Monroe's or Dean's. At the very most, the LGBT community might see him as a legend because Brokeback was a breakthrough for gays. I, however, was not a fan of his. I had to look at his picture to remember that he was someone famous."

"Heath was good eye-candy who, even better, knew how to act," scholar Sacha Charles averred, "and he will be remembered for a short while, then it will be 'gone with the wind.' I don't mean what I'm about to say as a diss to Heath or any of his fans, but I believe he did not do more or less than any other young actor who has passed away."

Shrugging her shoulders, nonprofit exec Bernadette Hageman noted, "Just a few days ago, my husband and I talked about the magnitude of coverage this young man was receiving. We couldn't help but wonder about the young men and women in our armed forces. They give their lives daily because they believe in this country; they believe in freedom and democracy; and they believe in a commitment to their fellow soldiers. Where is their coverage? And why is it we place such importance on the deaths of the Dean, Monroe, and Ledger while in the far, far distance, we give a faint whisper to the men and women who pay the ultimate price in service of their country?"

Iraq? Afghanistan? They are definitely not on the mind of one unknown YouTube mourner who went out and rented a James Dean bio on hearing about Heath: "I feel like I want to cry, but I don't know [Heath]. He's not my friend . . . . He didn't die to teach anyone a lesson. You never know when you are going to die. . . .Wherever you are Heath Ledger, I will see you soon."

Sounds like a legend. - Brandon Judell

brandon.jpgMr. Judell, who's currently teaching "Contemporary Israeli/Palestinian Cinema" at City College, has written on film for The Village Voice, indieWire, Detour, and dozens of other publications.