July 17, 2008

The Good Die Young, Some More Than Others

By Dan Craft

As a certain pointy-eared crusader descends upon us at high midnight tonight, we're moved to make several tangential, but, we promise, reasonably connected observations from a lifetime moving in and out of Gotham City:

- No doubt about it, of course: A big chunk of the new film's ("The Dark Knight") allure will be the frankly morbid one of the late (how strange it still sounds to say that) Heath Ledger's last stand, made doubly, triply morbid by the character he's playing.

It's unfortunate enough that an actor so young and vital had the plug yanked under such needless circumstances.

But now the pervading sensation is amplified by the fact that the role he's leaving us with won't do anything to mask that perception, so to speak.

The creep-show clips and photos we've been greeted with since Ledger's death last winter reek of death, debauchery and decay.

Of course, that's the nihilistic turf being pounded by his loco- a-go-go character, The Joker, who, it's plain to see, is anything but a joke now - at least when stood alongside his party-time forebears, Cesar Romero and Jack Nicholson.

Both the latter men were talented actors from opposite ends of the Hollywood performance spectrum whose interpretations swung from camp to theater-of-the-absurd.

And each was well into middle age at the point the role entered their careers (to be specific, Romero was 59 when the Adam West TV series premiered in 1966; Nicholson was 52 when he donned the greasepaint for Tim Burton's 1989 film edition).

Ledger's comparative youth brings with it - now - the deeply ironic subtext of mortality, a sensation exacerbated by the ghoulish "Night of the Living Dead Joker" makeup reinterpretation (let's just say it looks as if the Avon Lady came a-calling and went berserk).

We don't know about you, but over here on our side of the aisle, it's all going to make for a couple discomfiting hours at the bijou.

- Speaking of which: Since the dawn of cinema, movies have been characterized as shadow plays - congregations of images flickering in the dark across a sheath of celestial white, a landscape that intensifies the life-after-death metaphor.

The spectacle of watching someone dead and buried return to life again as one of these shadows also has been part and parcel of the movie-going tradition. No sooner had cinema found its way as an art form in the 20th-century's early going than its practitioners started dropping by the wayside.

If we had the time and resources, we'd reveal to you the identity of the first movie "star" to die young.

Anyone out there know? Is it someone we still care about, or even recognize, 80, 90 years later?

Our gut instinct tells us it was (surprise) Rudolph Valentino, the matinee idol just a few years older than Ledger (31) and plucked from his audience's midst for reasons barely more sensible (a perforated ulcer).

The consequences of that early passing are now the stuff of legend, with nothing less than mass hysteria passing through the ranks of millions of his mostly opposite-gender fans.

Valentino exited on the heels of a suitably dashing set of shadows, known as "The Son of the Sheik." No creepy Avon-Lady-gone- wild makeup for him, beyond the heavy mascara and eye shadow needed to put faces on silent movie film stock.

If Valentino's too-young shuffling off Hollywood's coil wasn't the first big movie star death, it was certainly the one that initially cast a whiff of necrophilia over the silver screen: Though he was six feet under as "Son of the Sheik" was still making the rounds in 1926, the shadow on the screen still made his constituency swoon with the kind of longing that has nothing to do with eulogies or last rites.

- Other movie stars we can think of who died not old enough (OK, let's say before they turned 60) in the post-Valentino, pre-Ledger era:

Will Rogers, 57, 1935, plane crash (with "Steamboat Round the Bend" still in theaters) ... Carole Lombard, 33, 1942, plane crash (with "To Be or Not to Be" still awaiting release) ... Leslie Howard, "Gone With the Wind's" Ashley Wilkes, 52, plane crash, 1943 (no films awaiting release, but "GWTW" was still making the rounds) ... James Dean, 24, 1955, car crash (with "Rebel Without a Cause" and "Giant" both awaiting release) ... Tyrone Power, 45, 1958, heart attack (with "Solomon and Sheba" partly completed) ... Marilyn Monroe, 36, 1962, drug overdose (with "Something's Got to Give" only partly completed).

And: Jayne Mansfield, 35, 1967, car crash (with her cameo bit in "A Guide for the Married Man" still in theaters) ... Natalie Wood, 43, 1981, accidental draining (with "Brainstorm" mostly completed) ... John Belushi, 33, 1982, drug overdose (with "Neighbors" still playing in second-run houses) ... River Phoenix, 23, 1993, drug overdose (with "Dark Blood" only partly completed) ... and, just a month or two before Ledger's strikingly similar exit, Brad ("The Client") Renfro, 25, drug overdose, 2008 (with "The Informers" awaiting release).

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