Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Why do we Care?

This post is in reference to the recent deaths of Brad Renfro and Heath Ledger. I might sound slightly callous, but that is not my intent. I am quite sad at the loss of both of these actors, but as I was thinking about it, a thought crept into my mind.

Let's deal with Heath Ledger, since he is the more recent of the two deceased. When I first saw the news, my jaw dropped slightly, a felt blood rush tingling sensation, and a small amount of tears welled up in my eyes. A day later, this title thought popped into my mind.

Why do I care? I never met Heath Ledger personally, I never saw him with my own eyes on the street or at some movie function. To the best of my knowledge, I never came within 2 miles of him. I've only seen him in 6 movies since 1999. Pieces of a few others, but only 6 that I've sat through. Yet, when I saw the news of his death, it was like a small gut punch. I look though the New York Times and my own local paper every day. They both have obituary sections. The local paper lists 10-20 names every day of people from the surrounding community. The Times does to, plus they have larger obit for this scientist, that social researcher, this retired executive. They've all died, but I don't feel anything; I don't get teary, I don't get sad. Obviously, their death is traumatic for their family members and friends, but not knowing the person myself, I don't really have much of a reaction?

So what is it about Heath Ledger's death that causes a reaction? His age? Yes, he was 6 years younger than myself, but I've seen obits for young people before and haven't had a reaction. And as I said before, I didn't have a personal relationship with him. Is it his celebrity? I'll admit that people do have strange relationships with celebrities. I've had the fortune to meet a few of them, and once you chat with them for a while, you realize that they're simply a normal human being that's been given a talent to do something or other slightly better than most people, but still, they're just a regular person. While I enjoyed watching Heath Ledger on the screen, I would say most of his movies were passably enjoyable, but nothing too memorable. Is it Brokeback Mountain? As a gay man, the movie was certainly a touch of a watershed in terms of movie history, and I certainly thought the movie was fantastic; but I see over 100 films a year in the theaters and know quite well that Brokeback was just a movie and not a real life documentary. Maybe it's the fact that the person will never act/play/whatever again? Possibly, but there is almost nobody I can think of who had a famous career in any field of which I had to see everything they did. In terms of movies, I pick and choose what I want to see. An actor I like might appear in nothing I want to see for the rest of his/her life. Is it the thought that maybe there is a great performance in the future that will never happen now?

So I end up confused. Whenever I see an obit for a celebrity (recently: Ledger, Renfro, Suzanne Pleshette), there is a definite twinge of sadness that comes over me, stronger for some, lesser for others. But what is behind that twinge? I'll pose the question to those of you who read this post. What do you think it is? I would imagine most people are in the same boat, never having had any contact with the deceased besides the results of their career. So why is it that people have a visceral reaction to a celebrity's death, when that celebrity is virtually unknown to them?

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