Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Let's Not Overhype Heath

Well, I've heard of Ted Heath, former British Prime Minister, and Ted Heath the bandleader. I've also heard of Adrian Heath, the Everton striker of the 1980s and Heath Robinson, the drawer of fabulous contraptions. And having a working knowledge of accounts, I also know what a ledger is. But I must admit that until last Sunday evening, when I read an article about him in the newspaper, I had never heard of Heath Ledger. Three days later and Ledger (above) is dead: at the age of just 28. The death of anyone at such an early age is tragic, but am I the only person who feels that the media reaction to the young actor's death has been completely over the top? Ledger's death was the main story on Radio 5's news bulletins last night, even though I'd wager that the vast majority of the station's listeners had never heard of the man. It's not enough to say that an up-and-coming actor had died at a tragically early age: no, we are informed that Ledger was a 'great actor', an 'amazing talent' and so on and so forth.

Compare the attention given to the comparatively little known Heath Ledger over the past twenty four hours, with the way the death of Deborah Kerr, a truly great actress, was covered when she died last year. Kerr's death, far from being the main story, was relegated to the final item on the BBC1 main news bulletin that evening.

We live in an age of hype, where those who haven't really achieved very much are
lauded in a ridiculously o.t.t. way, whereas those who have, like Kerr, are often forgotten.


Anonymous said...

Perhaps a man who's HEARD of Ledger would be best able to gauge how famous, or not, he is? Ledger was in one of the most succesful and acclaimed movies of the last few years, and has already filmed his part in what will probably be the summer's biggest hit. Sure, there's more important things going on in the world, but Ledger's death is news. Simply because you're not in touch, doesn't make it not so.

Neil Clark said...

I asked five people today- of various ages- if they had heard of Heath Ledger, and none of them had. Yet his death has been given more prominence than that of truly famous British actors such as Deborah Kerr and Sir John Mills. Ok, their deaths weren't sudden like Ledger's but even so, it does seem rather strange that an actor that so few people seem to have heard of has been given such massive media attention. It's not just Ledger, think back to when John Peel died. He was a DJ yet his death made front page news, and was treated as a massive event: even the PM felt obliged to comment. Of course Peel's death was sad, but it was hyped up out of all proportion. It didn't use to be like this. When the American actor Jim Hutton died in 1979, his death only made the inside pages in Britain, yet at the time of his death he was a FAR better known actor than Ledger.

Anonymous said...

Although I am sad to learn of Ledger's death, I must admit I nearly burst out laughing when I heard the BBC newsreader announce that "later we'll look back over the life of (28 year old) Heath Ledger." It's the same mentality as those who want to open a Hall of Fame for Little League Baseball.

Come on, we all know what this is about. The attention is due to Heath Ledger's role in Brokeback Mountain, the film about 2 gay cowboys. It's less a question of how talented or accomplished the actor is these days but whether he/she is viewed as having contributed to "breaking down barriers" or has been willing to tackle controversial subject matters on screen.

The result is that a huge number of great books, plays etc that reveal eternal truths will remain forever unfilmed because they have no social shock value.

Ledger's death is also tragic for what it tells us about our obsessions.

Anonymous said...

As soon as I heard the news last night, I texted my wife, who was dining at a restaurant with a friend.

Her spontaneous reaction was so vocal that everyone heard, and within seconds the whole place was buzzing - she had to ring me up to dictate the (then pretty skimpy) BBC coverage over the phone so she could read it out to her various eavesdroppers.

So it's safe to say that quite a few people have heard of him! (Sorry, Neil, Luke's quite right - you really are badly out of touch here)

As for the comparison with Deborah Kerr - firstly, Kerr's death got loads of coverage, including lengthy, well-researched obituaries. The only reason it wasn't a major front-page news story is because an elderly woman dying of natural causes, many many years after completing her final work, doesn't make for a particularly gripping, compelling or newspaper-selling read.

On the other hand, the death of a very young man, who had already achieved major stardom (including an Oscar nomination) before his thirtieth birthday, dying unexpectedly and in mid-production of a film (which may now have to be written off) is clearly far more immediately newsworthy.

Another crucial difference is that when Kerr died, every paper had an obituary ready to go. In Ledger's case, hardly anyone did, so the lengthy career overviews in the news section partly acted as a stopgap.

So a better comparison would be with a hypothetical situation whereby Kerr carked it completely unexpectedly while in the middle of filming The King and I. Which is broadly equivalent to what happened yesterday.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and the film that may have to be written off - Ledger died almost exactly halfway through shooting, a producer's ultimate nightmare scenario - was being directed by Terry Gilliam.

I'm trusting that 70s comedy obsessive Neil Clark has at least heard of him...

Nick said...

Neil, most media activities are over the top - but you know that; you're a member. So why pick on this one in particular?

Neil Clark said...

anonymous: I couldn't agree more. to shock is all that matters today-
just look at comedy where Borat and Little Britain are lauded.

slapheads: thanks for your contributions, but I'm not a 1970s comedy 'obsessive', just someone who thinks that the 1970s comedies remain the best we have ever seen. Fawlty Towers, Dad's Army, It Aint Half Hot Mum, The Good Life, Steptoe, Porridge, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?,
Rising Damp, The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, need I go on?

And slapheads, I'd also take issue with you claim that:
" a better comparison would be with a hypothetical situation whereby Kerr carked it completely unexpectedly while in the middle of filming The King and I. "

Had Kerr 'carked it' unexpectedly during the iflming of the King and I she would still have had a rich body of work behind her: The Life and Death of Col Blimp, Dark Narcissus, Love on the Dole, and of course, From Here to Eternity. By the time of the King and I she had already starred in 22 films!

Of course, had she died in 1956 her death would have made a bigger impact in the media than it did when she died in 2007, but the limited coverage of her demise was truly shocking. I can think of no other country in Europe which would have relegated the death of one of their greatest and most internationally famous actors to the final item on the main news bulletin.

Anonymous said...

Ok, if you're going to be pedantic, let's say that Kerr carked it while filming King Solomon's Mines in 1950, when she would have been roughly the same age as Heath Ledger.

In fact, I should have made that comparison yesterday, as it's much more telling - because I'd say Kerr and Ledger would have been much closer in terms of career achievement, even to the point of bagging unsuccessful Oscar nominations the year before!

Seriously, Neil, if you want to see why so many people were genuinely shocked by Ledger's premature death, watch Brokeback Mountain. Or even read Joe Queenan's eulogy in today's Guardian, assuming you haven't done so already, as he makes the case very eloquently (and has seen more of Ledger's films than I have). That was one hell of a brave part to take on, and there aren't that many other actors of Ledger's looks, fame and sexuality who would have dared.

Douglas said...

The four most linked-to blog posts, as measured by BlogPulse on Tuesday, January 22, all had something to do with Ledger's death. In the greater scheme of things, I don't consider it that newsworthy either.

It didn't hurt the hype that he was found nekkid in Mary-Kate Olsen's apartment.

I've never seen any movies with Ledger in them, but I had at least heard of some movies he was in, most notably Brokeback Mountain. Ledger was nominated for Best Actor for his performance in that film, and that somewhat caught my attention.

I'm not really in a position to comment, but you seem to be of the opinion that British television has declined in quality and entertainment value from, say, twenty years ago. Here in the US we have a cable channel called TV Land, which replays TV shows from 20, 30 and 40 years ago. If what you say is true, then perhaps a similar channel in the UK might be a smashing success.

Anonymous said...

Now, now, to say that at the time of his death Jim Hutton "was a FAR better known actor than Ledger" is pretty silly. You can't be serious.

However likable, Hutton was never a big star. And he was very much a has-been in 1979. In fact, he'd been a has-been since the late 1960s. His last big film was "Walk Don't Run" in 1966. A flop.

Heath Ledger was the star of "Brokeback Mountain," a major worldwide hit a mere two years ago -- and not because of its "social shock value."

Only bigoted morons would be shocked by it -- in fact, the film is much too tame -- and those wouldn't go see it to begin with.

"Brokeback" won literally dozens of awards in the U.S. and elsewhere -- including the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, the BAFTA award for best film, and just about every critics' group award in the U.S. Not surprisingly, it became a cultural phenomenon. (I'm not a fan of the film, so it's not as if I am biased.)

(By the way, you'd never heard of "Brokeback Mountain," either??)

Ledger himself was voted best actor by the New York Film Critics Circle, and was nominated for the best actor BAFTA, Screen Actors Guild, and Academy awards. Whether or not one likes his performance as the closeted gay ranch hand is irrelevant; one must admit that the man made quite an impact.

The tabloid reaction to Ledger's death has been pathetic, and surely they have gone way over the top -- as to be expected. But the accolades he's received are well deserved, not only for his "Brokeback" performance but also for all other film roles he might have created had he lived longer.

Personally, I'm not a Heath Ledger fan, though -- generally speaking -- I found his performance quite good in "Brokeback." I was very upset by his unexpected death; strange, considering he was someone I'd never met and know very little about.

But that last scene in "Brokeback Mountain" -- as Ledger's character faces the little that's left of the life he chose not to live -- has stayed with me since I saw the film two years ago. I'm sure it'll stay with me for as long as I'm around on this planet.

Ah, before I go... I have a tribute to Deborah Kerr -- I'm a card-carrying Kerr fan -- on my blog. The myriad obits I read at the time did not do her justice, at least in my view. So I wrote something about her.

Here's the link:

(If links are inappropriate, please feel free to remove it.)

Neil Clark said...

Hi Douglas: There is a channel called 'UK Gold' but it is only available on cable. I think a UK Gold on terrestrial free to air tv would get at least half the viewing public watching straight away.

slapheads: thanks for the link.
andre; thanks for your comments. I'm afraid I don't agree with you re Hutton. In the 70s he moved to do more tv work- capped of course by his brilliant portrayal of Ellery Queen in the popular 1975 NBC series.
His death at the age of just 45 was a great shock, but despite being more well known than Ledger, it received very little attention in the British media.
thanks for the links. pleased you're a fellow DK fan!

Anonymous said...

His death at the age of just 45 was a great shock, but despite being more well known than Ledger

I find that extremely hard to believe, and think at the very least you should produce some supporting evidence.

Ledger starred or played significant supporting roles in several major international blockbusters, as well as securing a Best Actor Oscar nomination before his thirtieth birthday. And the fact that his last two completed films were the kaleidoscopic arthouse oddity I'm Not There and the latest Batman film shows, at the very least, a certain range.

By contrast, there's very little that really leaps out at me in Hutton's filmography. The Green Berets was a solid hit, while Major Dundee was a mutilated masterpiece... but much of the rest is resoundingly mediocre, both in terms of artistic merit and box-office appeal - and he spent the last few years of his career on American telly, the trajectory aiming unmistakably downwards.

And I know the Internet Movie Database is far from infallible, but the sole award Hutton seems to have picked up is a third placing in the 1961 Laurel Awards for Top New Male Personality. Would you care to compare that with Ledger's lineup? (And they weren't all for Brokeback Mountain, either!)

Neil Clark said...

Slapheads: Of course, we'll never be able to test it, but I'm sure that if you'd shown people in Britain a photo of Hutton on the day he died in 1979 and asked them 'Do you know who this man is'-a much higher percentage would answer in the affirmative than if you'd ask the same question of them about Ledger.
You say that Hutton's tv career was in a downward trajectory in the 1970s, but you don't mention his unforgettable performance in the brilliant Ellery Queen series.

hazMattSoot said...

Hi Neil,
I'm a newcomer to this dialogue.

I have to agree (with all due respect) that you are simply out of touch with rising talent in modern film. And you are only strengthening this argument by citing the death of an actor 20 years ago for comparison. With the progression of the media and the exponential ease at which we access information, perhaps Jim Hutton would have been the celebrated hollywood tragedy that you'd deem suitable.

It's inarguable that Ledger was a prominent talent who was only improving his craft with each film, and his loss was a self-inflicted tragedy. I'll agree that we are oversaturated by EVERYTHING that's headline-worthy in this age...but your claim that he was relatively unknown is preposterous.

Do yourself a favor and watch a few films that he was nominated for (and the Dark Knight as well):