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Hollywood and death: a tug of war between nostalgia and the ephemeral

It’s funny to think of all those classic Hollywood movies — screwball comedies, old-school epics, cloak-and-dagger noir pics, bubblegum musicals, midnight stoner schlock flicks with Vincent Price and Bela Lugosi — as the collected works of dead people returning from their graves to doff their caps, save the day or do the monster mash once more, at least until the next time the play button is hit and the magic resets itself.

When we watch actors who are no longer alive, screens fizz with energy to return their movement, swagger and language. These are the intangibles we label with words like “gravitas” or “charisma”. Moments are created out of memories. The cinematic art form revels in the kind of entertainment that can only come from a reluctance to let go — and a business model built on visions of the past. The term “live action”, used to describe non-animated movies and TV, was always a misnomer. There is nothing live about the contents of a film.

The American entertainment industry’s relationship with death is caught in a constant tug of war between fixation on the ephemeral — young actors become old actors, starlets become hags, hunks become meat sacks of wrinkles, people die, credits change — and a burning lust for nostalgia that takes corpses and plies them with sparks to bring them back to life before our eyes.

As years come and go, faces of deceased celebrities blur in the mind like a huge Madame Tussauds wax structure slowly melting in the sun. But it feels like the previous year has encapsulated something of the dichotomy mentioned above — showcasing life versus refusing to say goodbye — more than most.

In November 2013, action star Paul Walker — a man most famous for playing a brilliant driver in a series of movies about pedal-to-the-metal hotheads — died, in a way you might call fast and furious, when a car he was riding in crashed at a speed of more than 100 miles per hour and burst into flames. Photos of the sandwiched wreckage look like mechanical gunk, stuff that gets stuck between the teeth of Optimus Prime. If the irony of Walker’s death wasn’t savage enough, he’ll posthumously return to cinemas in 2015 (aided by CGI and stand-in footage) in The Fast and the Furious 7, where his character will partake in daredevil road carnage.

In May this year, at the Billboard Music Awards, the star of the show was a song-and-dance man who gave one hell of a live performance, making headlines around the world for a rendition of his “new” track, Slave to the Rhythm. The performer’s name was Michael Jackson. He died in 2009. The performance was projected via what seemed to be a hologram — in fact, it was a magic trick called Pepper’s Ghost, first used in 1862. This is the entertainment industry through and through: an apparition of an apparition; new ghosts created from old ones.

On Australian screens moviegoers are currently able to watch a new performance from one of the finest actors of his (or any) generation. Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died in February from a drug overdose, is currently in cinemas in director Anton Corbijn’s A Most Wanted Man. He plays the head of an ultra-secret German anti-terrorism team — an overweight, whiskey-drinking, chain ciggie-smoking force of nature who understands his place in a heavily politicised dog-eat-dog universe and isn’t going to accept it lying down.

And then yesterday came the terribly sad news that Robin Williams, one of the great high-energy Hollywood comedians (and a very fine dramatic actor) died in his home in northern California, aged 63. He took his own life.

In 2010, on the publicity tour for Bobcat Goldthwait’s outstanding dramedy World’s Greatest Dad (featuring one of Williams’ most complex performances, neglected when the obits rolled out — they were Good Morning, Vietnam this and Mrs Doubtfire that) the late actor spoke to The Guardian about being afraid. On the subject of drink: “You think, oh, this will ease the fear. And it doesn’t.” Williams said he was afraid of “Everything. It’s just a general all-round arggghhh. It’s fearfulness and anxiety.”

It’s impossible to contextualise the fear that killed Robin Williams, and no point in playing armchair psychologist. Suffice it to say actors are generally a scared and insecure bunch, and they have good reason to be. While Hollywood routinely brings back the dead and shows us spirits of moments past, downstairs — beneath that big celluloid cloud in the sky — day-to-day and year-to-year machinations tell a less romantic story, concerned with rotating live bodies rather than applying a magical defibrillator to dead ones.

Those who understand the basics of the Hollywood star-making system understand the fickle nature of the beast. The constant spotlight changing, chair rearranging and attention shifting that strikes fear in the heart of celebrities who spend years building themselves into brands, commodities to be bought and traded. The industry of celebrity is wholly dependent on new products. Without a constant fresh supply, all you have is a group of people getting old and dying.

Few things cripple the illusion of escapism more than the cold knowledge we are all vulnerable mortals — some of us lost, most of us insecure. But perhaps the entertainment industry doesn’t like letting go for reasons that have nothing to do with emotion. Saying goodbye forever would mean giving the business model one almighty jolt. No more reruns of It’s a Wonderful Life come Christmas time.

When Robin Williams and now Lauren Bacall, who died aged 89, appear in the Academy Awards’ In Memoriam montage next year, the Oscars will not just be honouring fallen comrades — they will be laying the groundwork for decades upon decades of repeat screenings and stock footage, getting us accustomed to watching “live” pictures of the deceased.

If you are feeling distressed or in need of help, visit this page for a detailed list of support services or seek support via telephone: Lifeline 13 11 14; Mensline 1300 789 978; Kids Helpline 1800 551 800.

2 responses to “Hollywood and death: a tug of war between nostalgia and the ephemeral

  1. No doubt Hollywood and the repetition industry will exploit the recent deaths of Hoffman, Williams and Bacall as far as they can. Oscars are used to boost the appeal of stars who otherwise are not a great box office draw – hence Williams for example, a brilliant performer and a major audience magnet, for all of this, only got one and for a supporting role. The actual merits of their work gets lost in the wash. Cut my tongue out, but Hoffman in A Most Wanted Man is variable and adequate, not great; Mrs Doubtfire is a mysogynist film.


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