We've lost a lot of big stars this year, but our public fascination with celebrity death is far from new.
5 Sep 2014 - 11:00 AM  UPDATED 5 Sep 2014 - 12:07 PM

The law says you can say anything about someone after they die. Once you’re underground it’s hard to get a lawyer to do anything, let alone return calls. The law of custom and convention seems to have more credibility; it follows the ancient Latin rule, ‘about the dead, nothing should be said unless it’s something good.’ Of course, that wisdom was coined before actors had agents, and the advent of Twitter.

Social media aggregators claim they’ve rarely seen traffic on Twitter as it was in the wake of Robin Williams' passing (when the shock news broke on August 11, the topic dominated all of the top 10 global trends). And of course, news of Joan Rivers' death today has sparked an avalanche of tweeted tributes to the comedy pioneer.

Though the methods might have changed, public fascination with celebrity death is far from new, as our account of the various stages of grieving celebrities demonstrates.

Shock and Denial: The Death of Valentino

Rudolph Valentino, Italian émigré, was the original ‘Latin Lover’, a star of the silent screen. Women adored him. Men envied his power. Gossips wondered aloud how anyone could prefer his androgynous handsomeness to the machismo of his rival, Douglas Fairbanks. Valentino died in his prime aged 31 in August 1926 and the grief reached so deep that there were credible reports of fan suicides. Over 100,000 mourners – mostly women – turned out to his New York funeral. There was a riot. For some, his passing is a testament, if one seems necessary, to the power of the movies.


Pain and Guilt: John Belushi

When a star dies, fans ask themselves: What’s the legacy? Journalist Bob Woodward (with Carl Bernstein) helped to fell a corrupt president. But when he turned a cold, hard look at the allure of drugs and its icy grip on Hollywood in his book Wired: The Short Life and Fast Times of John Belushi, it alienated movie fans everywhere. Woodward saw the beloved actor in cliché star terms: a reckless, selfish, lazy and undisciplined talent who squandered his gifts and whose death at 33 in 1982 from a speedball – a cocktail of coke and heroin – made him both victim and cautionary tale. Fans and the industry hated the moral grandstanding.  Wired left a bad aftertaste: an expose by an outsider that did nothing to reveal the man or his contribution to the art of comedy. (See Roger Ebert's account of the controversy.) Belushi’s manager quipped that the book got it so wrong, it made wonder whether Nixon might have been innocent.


Anger & Bargaining: Marilyn Monroe and Bruce Lee

When a star dies in an untimely fashion, fans and pop theorists imagine that the grim reaper may have had an earthly accomplice. Grief moves the fan to bargain with ‘what ifs’ and conspiracy theories, never close the case. When Marilyn Monroe was found dead of an overdose age 36 in 1962, there were rumours of murder, which persist to this day. The suspects included the Mafia, the CIA and President JFK and his brother Bobby. Bruce Lee’s celebrity cult was more than Kung Fu and rippling abs. Dead at 32 in 1973, fans claimed Lee’s demise a mystery, a conspiracy, a possible murder, or the result of a curse. He was an intercontinental Asian superstar only fully embraced by the West after he died. The New York Times obituary ran eight lines. Decades later, Time named him one of 100 most influential people of the 20th century.


Depression, Reflection, Loneliness: Social media and @JamesDean  

In a pre-digital age, mourning fans built memorials in the real world (or got a tattoo). Once fellow stars and power brokers placed homage in the Trades, sent a wreath and made a contribution to the departed one’s favourite charity. These days, the beautiful and the popular still do all that but they join the rest of us in the virtual world which now carries the weight of grief: Twitter, YouTube and blogs are stacked with tributes. Still, there can be a price to pay. Take the strange case of @JamesDean. The American Bar Association reported earlier this year that the anonymous owner of the handle was being sued by Dean’s estate for copyright infringement. CMG Worldwide representing the star’s estate demanded Twitter, which has both an impersonation and a copyright policy, shut the account down. At first, Twitter gave the fan responsible a pass and kept the account active. Of course, it’s unlikely an unsuspecting punter could mistake the tweets for the ‘real’ thing since Dean died in September, 1955. However, many estates of deceased celebrities manage verified accounts in their name. Right now @JamesDean is M.I.A. on Twitter, suggesting the battle over the ownership goes on.


The Upward Turn: Liz Taylor, Steve McQueen and Others

Dead stars live on in the hearts and minds of fans… and within the bank accounts of those fortunate enough to inherit fortunes by virtue of blood, lawsuit, or bequeath. Fans and players keep the legacy and the beneficiaries alive by forking out millions for brands and merchandise and licensing. Liz Taylor died in March 2011 at 79 and in 2012 her estate made $210m (US). Elvis Presley made $55m for his ‘people’ that same year, which isn’t bad since he died in 1977 age 42, while Marilyn Monroe’s glamour was worth a modest $10m. Being dead is not an impediment to modelling, either. Steve McQueen, who died in 1980 age 50, was once the King of Cool. These days, he’s a posthumous ‘brand ambassador’ for Tag Heuer.



Acceptance: The Awards Show Memorial

The Award Show In Memoriam tribute to those players who’ve merged with the infinite in the last year seems a nice idea (if it weren’t for the fact that it so often feels like an afterthought). Even producers of the segments admit it is an awkward co-mingling of schmaltz, sentiment and a strived-for good taste: photogenic head shots, joyfully punning clips where appropriate, music set to swell hearts and throats, etc. Maybe it’s the live audience clapping wildly at their faves – which makes it seem like a ‘dead persons popularity sweepstakes’ – or maybe it’s the hasty run past the older and the less-famous in favour of lingering shots on the bigger names and more famous faces. Indeed, given the legitimate risk of 11th-hour inclusions, the Oscars’ In Memoriam segment is literally a last minute thing fraught with guilt, according to the Academy’s now retired, long-term executive director Bruce Davis. He told the LA Times once that, “more people die each year than can possibly be included.” The already crammed Oscars can only afford room to pay homage to so many souls. “You’re dropping names the public knows.” Artists live on in their movies, says Davis, and that’s true. Still, this kind of ‘tribute’ is a hell of a way to start an afterlife.