In college, I took a sociology course called “Media and Society.” The professor who taught it made a point of differentiating between the concept of fame and that of celebrity: the former, he argued, had existed from ancient times and resulted from the performance of admirable or heroic deeds, while the latter was a purely modern condition that anyone with a talent for getting attention could attain, whether their accomplishments were truly significant or purely superficial. To his assessment, I would add that while fame may weigh heavily on the shoulders of those it has chosen, celebrity eats its victims alive. The second half of the 20th century is, culturally speaking, largely defined by a timeline of celebrity deaths, most of which were a result of drug use or other self-destructive behavior: James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Hendrix, Janis, Jim Morrison, Sid Vicious, John Belushi, Kurt Cobain. The 21st shows no signs of reversing this trend, if the demises of Michael Jackson, Heath Ledger, and Anna Nicole Smith are any indication.
In recent weeks, the Faded Celebrity Death March has kicked into high gear, giving further credence to my former prof’s theory: even people we no longer care about in life can revive their “careers,” as it were, by dying tragically. First there was the suicide of Andrew Koenig, a second-generation celeb (his father played Chekov on Star Trek) who was best known for playing a character called “Boner” (that would never make it past Standards and Practices today) on Growing Pains. Then came news of the untimely but all-too-predictable death of Corey Haim, half of the once-powerful “Corey and Corey” movie duo. Considering how public Haim’s struggles with drugs have been, and how obscure Koenig became following his departure from the Seaver universe, the amount of press coverage both events received is somewhat surprising. Perhaps my perspective is skewed: I never really watched Growing Pains (I was a Family Ties fan myself), so the first I ever heard of Koenig was when he went missing, and though I have great affection for Haim as the title character in Lucas, I avoided most of the rest of his cinematic output – yes, even License to Drive. Was I boycotting the movies during the late 1980s? Hardly. I simply had a different movie celebrity on my mind. He was more serious, more mysterious, than either of the Coreys, and more magnetic than virtually any other actor of his age category. Of course, none of those characteristics prevented him from falling victim to Celebrity-itis; indeed, while Koenig and Haim held on nearly until middle age, River Phoenix never saw twenty-five.
I still remember how I found out about River’s death. I was lying in bed in my college dorm room, waking up slowly to my radio alarm. Suddenly I heard the DJ say his name, followed by the phrase “collapsed and died.” I sat bolt upright, listening to the account of how the young actor had passed out on the street outside of a Los Angeles club owned by fellow deep-thinking celeb Johnny Depp. Now I knew that famous people were not immortal – I remembered, of course, the murder of John Lennon, whose name and music I had known practically since birth – but the death of the smart Beatle, no matter how tragic, was that of a grown-up person, someone who had been famous before I was even born. By contrast, I had been there as River Phoenix transformed from a talented nobody with a strange name to a movie star to an Oscar nominee. His films helped turn me into the sort of person who would sit though the same movie twice in the theater (yeah, you used to be able to do that in NYC). His face had been on my bedroom wall throughout high school – so much so that when my mother read about his death in the paper, she cut out the attached photo and put it up in my bedroom at home for me. I still have that photo.
Maybe I’m biased, but I still believe that River Phoenix was special. Yes, now his brother Joaquin is a bona-fide, if eccentric, film star (poor thing, the hysterical 911 call he made may have gotten him pity auditions), but the younger’s talent is like rock and roll, while the elder’s was like jazz. Besides, River had the good fortune to appear in one of the best films about childhood and friendship ever made, Stand by Me. The cast of that movie works together like dancers in a ballet, but where did its other stars end up? Wil Wheaton became Wesley Crusher, Jerry O’Connell slid into Sliders, and Corey Feldman, bless him, joined forces with Corey Haim. On the strength of his performance, River Phoenix got roles in movies even adults wanted to see, like The Mosquito Coast, Running on Empty (his Oscar nom), and My Own Private Idaho. Sure, he went wrong from time to time: A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon, much anticipated by my peer group, turned out to be a creepy disappointment, despite the presence of Ann Magnuson. But River made up for his career mistakes by being otherwise insanely cool – he dated Martha Plimpton, eschewed meat and dairy way before that was trendy, and had a band with his sister, Rain. I saw them play at the Palladium at a show called “Rock Against Fur,” which awakened my consciousness to the evil of wearing animals. I still eat them, I admit, but even if I was not willing to give up meat for my celebrity obsession, I thought very highly of him for his sensitivity and generally principled persona. And have I mentioned that he was beautiful?
It turns out that even very idealistic and righteous people can have big problems. River’s family life, which had been described in magazines like Bop as blissful and loving, had taken him and his many siblings to some dark places, including the Children of God cult, now well-known for preaching a gospel of child molestation. He may not have believed in putting animal products in his body, but he apparently had introduced numerous other substances, including heroin, coke and Valium. His parents gave him a name that marked him as unique, but ultimately, his talent, ethics, and individuality were no match for the pressures and temptations of being young, attractive, and wealthy. River had the greatest promise, but he is gone, and Wil Wheaton, Jerry O’Connell, and even Corey Feldman are still alive. For now. Celebrity is a cruel mistress, and also an unpredictable one; for every Jimi Hendrix, there is a Keith Richards, somehow avoiding her wrath and giving fellow fame-whores the false impression that the odds are in their favor. Can we break the cycle? Let’s hope so. Someone keep a close on eye on Dakota Fanning and Lady Gaga.