Tag Archives: Celebrity deaths



Q: It’s sixty years this month since the release of the film Giant (40th anniversary poster above). This was a big film in the 1950s, but never ranks among the likes of The Godfather, Casablanca, or Gone With The Wind as a twentieth century classic. But I know you’re going to tell us that it has cultural significance that escapes most of us.
A: It’s only what you’d expect from me, isn’t it? You can see a half-century of popular culture in Giant. Three mortal figures advance towards immortality in this film.
Q: Well, that’s quite a claim. Continue.
A: First, the story. Edna Ferber’s book Giant concerns an oil-and-ranching family modeled on the Kleberg family, who ran (and still run today) the vast King Ranch in South Texas. Giant is the story a simple cowhand who becomes a conniving, bigoted oil tycoon and cattle baron and his strong-willed wife, transplanted from the greenery of her native Maryland, who curbs his Southern vulgarities with her Eastern civility. Serialized in Ladies’ Home Journal beginning in the spring of 1952, Giant was released that fall to immense sales, quickly leaping onto the New York Times best-seller list. But the film based on the novel secretes another story. Warner Brothers, having secured the rights – amid much competition from other studios – to Ferber’s work, cast Rock Hudson in the central role of Bick Benedict, the Texas rancher, Hudson, then 29, was what was known in the mid-1950s as “beefcake,” meaning an outstandingly handsome and muscular man who radiated heterosexual attractiveness. Montgomery Clift, also possessed of exceptional good looks, was earmarked for the role of Jett Rink, the poor dirt farmer who strikes it rich, thought to be based on Glenn McCarthy, who was a flamboyant oil millionaire, known as “King of the Wildcatters” (a wildcatter is a prospector who sinks exploratory oil wells). But the producers were suspicious of his drinking and opted for the then relatively untested method actor James Dean, who made East of Eden (1955) and seemed an acceptable risk. Dean was also handsome, but, in his case, haunted-looking, which was fashionably impressive – he looked, to use a term that originated at the time and has persisted since, cool.
Q: And the role of Leslie?
A: Grace Kelly was a natural for the role of Bick’s wife. The humble, blonde Philadelphia beauty who became Hollywood star had not yet fled to become a European princess and looked perfect. She was about as hot as it was possible to be at the time. She’d been in High Noon, Dial M for Murder and To Catch a Thief. The film’s director George Stevens had briefly considered Elizabeth Taylor, but, at 23, she seemed too young (Kelly was nearly two-and-a-half years older). The story goes that Hudson, possibly wary that hugely popular Kelly might steal his thunder, argued Taylor’s case and eventually got his way. Remember: Taylor was not yet the scandalizing hellcat she became, though, she had gone through her first unruly marriage and was now married to English actor Michael Wilding. But she had not yet taken on a role that was truly adult and the role demanded that she age an improbable twenty-five years over the course of Ferber’s saga.
Q: Now, you describe Hudson as beefcake. But he later became the first Hollywood star to die from Aids. He was gay, if memory serves. So?
A: This was the 1950s. America hadn’t even started contemplating repealing its sodomy laws, as they called them. Hudson was shut tight in the closet. In fact he was married to his agent’s assistant. In those days, they were called “lavender marriages,” meaning they were designed to remove suspicions about an actor’s sexual preferences.
Q: So, there were suspicions about Hudson?
A: In the film industry, for sure. But don’t forget, in the 1950s, Hollywood operated a smooth-functioning publicity operation and allowed only the information it wanted released to escape to the outside world. Had it become known that Hudson was gay – and he didn’t come out until only weeks before his death in 1985 – it would have killed off his professional career instantly.
Q: Did Taylor know?
A: Almost certainly. And, if she didn’t when they started filming, she would have known soon enough, if only because he didn’t make a move on her. She was one of the most desirable women in the world at the time and her marriage was apparently on the rocks. If there had been social media back then, we would have all got rolling reports on them.
Q: And Dean?
A: Well his heterosexual credentials were also called into question, though not as conspicuously as Hudson’s of course. Then again, there the gossip, rumour and hearsay surrounding Dean has never ceased. When someone dies, especially prematurely, it seems to provide the world with licence to think, say and share whatever they choose. Dean was killed in a road accident before filming had even finished. He’d completed his scenes and was driving his Porsche Spyder in Cholame, California. This was 1955. Dean (who was born in 1931), like Marlon Brando (born 1924) was one of those mid-20th century glamor-rebels challenging a society in the throes of a social, cultural and psychological adjustment to peacetime. Their political aspirations were captured in Brando’s answer to, “Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?” in The Wild One (1953). “What’ve you got?” Elvis was another pin-up rebel without a cause, conviction or purpose. Dean, perhaps more than the others, encoded the mood of his generation. It was a generation that had not yet assimilated changes in the cultural politics of sex: Dean was unequivocally male and that meant his glazed handsomeness was intended to excite young women. It did. But that was just the visible tip of Dean’s ultra cool iceberg. The Dean myth grew bigger, appreciably bigger, than the man. Check this picture of him in crucifiorm mode, with Taylor looking at him almost worshipfully.




Q: Let me pause briefly to reflect: the film featured Hudson, who was, for all the world knew, a straight lady’s man, but who later took on iconic importance when he became the first Aids victim from the Hollywood A-list. There was also Taylor, who, at that time, was still four years away from her scandalous affair with Eddie Fisher, who was best man at her third wedding, and married to one of the world’s most popular girl-next-door types, Debbie Reynolds — and father of her children. And Dean, who died young and handsome and whose image was to adorn millions of posters, tee-shirts, coffee mugs and who was to become the subject of books and movies. He was one of those characters who, as they say, captured the zeitgeist.
A: Correct.
Q: I get it: they were all, in their own ways, icons of the late twentieth century.
A: Yes, though the affair with Fisher was only the start of the Taylor’s notoriety. In the early 1960s, she meet Richard Burton in Italy on the set of Cleopatra (see below). Still married to Fisher, she became involved with the Welsh actor, himself married and with children. The timing of the clandestine affair was perfect in a sense. The Italian photojournalists who later became known to us all as paparazzi were just beginning their exploits and caught Taylor and Burton in flagrante. The image quickly circulated around the world, heralding the arrival of a new type of journalism.


Elizabeth Taylor, 1932-2011


Q: And ultimately, the rise of what we now recognize as celebrity culture.
A: I’d say so. Now do you understand what I mean when I say Hudson, Taylor and Dean were three mortals advancing towards immortality? In a way, all three have left their impressions on our culture.
Q: What made you think of this?
A: I claim no credit. An American journalist Amanda Champagne, who writes for Closer, asked me to comment on the film as we approach its anniversary and, as I was thinking about the production, it occurred to me that the three main actors were far from cultural behemoths in 1956 when the film was released. But, over subsequent decades, each became colossally significant in completely different ways.

Final bell sounds for Muhammad Ali: The Greatest


Ali vs. Fraizer

On October 2, 1980, Muhammad Ali, then aged 38, and Larry Holmes, the heavyweight champion of the world, entered a temporary arena built at Caesar’s Palace, Las Vegas. A gate of nearly 25,000 had paid $5,766,125, a record in its day. “It wasn’t a fight; it was an execution,” wrote Ali’s biographer Thomas Hauser. After ten sickeningly one-sided rounds, Ali’s trainer Angelo Dundee signalled Ali’s retirement. Ali’s aide and confidante Bundini Brown pleaded: “One more round.” But, Dundee snapped back: “Fuck you! No! … The ballgame’s over.”

In a way, he was right: one game had indeed finished. Ali fought only once more. His health had been deteriorating for several years before the ill-advised Holmes fight and the savaging he took repulsed even his sternest critics. Ali the “fearsome warrior,” as Hauser calls him, would disappear, replaced by a “benevolent monarch and ultimately to a benign venerated figure”.

And now that venerated figure has died, aged 74.

Muhammad Ali was also a symbol of black protest, a cipher for the anti-Vietnam movement, a martyr (or traitor, depending on one’s perspective), a self-regarding braggart, and many more things beside. While there have been several sports icons, none have approached Ali in terms of complexity, endowment and sheer potency. Jeffrey Sammons suggests: “Perhaps no single person embodied the ethic of protest and intersected with so many lives, ordinary and extraordinary.”

Born into two nations

Born in Louisville, Kentucky, in the segregated south, Cassius Clay, as he was christened, was made forcibly aware of America’s “two nations,” one black, one white. After winning a gold medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics, he returned home to be refused service at a restaurant. This kind of incident was to influence his later commitments.

Clay both infuriated and fascinated audiences with his outrageous claims to be the greatest boxer of all times, his belittling of opponents, his poetry and his habit of predicting (often accurately) the round in which his fights would end. “It’s hard to be modest when you’re as great as I am,” he remarked.

Should have seen the other bloke.
PA Wire

He beat Sonny Liston for the world heavyweight title in 1964 and easily dismissed him in the rematch. Between the two fights, he proclaimed his change of name to Muhammad Ali, reflecting his conversion to Islam. While he’d made public his membership of the Nation of Islam (NoI), sometimes known as the Black Muslims, prior to the first Liston fight, few understood the implications. The NoI was led by Elijah Muhammad and had among its most famous followers Malcolm X, who kept company with Ali and who was to be assassinated in 1965.

Among the NoI’s principles was a belief that whites were intent on keeping black people in a state of subjugation and that integration was not only impossible, but undesirable. Blacks and whites should live separately; preferably living in different states. The view was in stark distinction to North America’s melting pot ideal.

Ali’s commitment deepened and the media, which had earlier warmed to his extravagance, turned against him. A rift occurred between Ali and Joe Louis, the former heavyweight champion who was once described as “a credit to his race.” This presaged several other conflicts with other black boxers whom Ali believed had allowed themselves to become assimilated into white America and had failed to face themselves as true black people.

Sting like a bee

The events that followed Ali’s call-up by the military in February 1966 were dramatised by a background of growing resistance to the US involvement in the Vietnam War. Ali’s oft-quoted remark “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong” made headlines around the world. He insisted that his conscience not cowardice guided his decision not to serve in the military and, so, to many others, he became a mighty signifier of pacifism. To others he was just another draft dodger.

At the nadir of his popularity, he fought Ernie Terrell, who, like Patterson, persisted in calling him “Clay.” The fight in Houston had a grim subtext with Ali constantly taunting Terrell. “What’s my name, Uncle Tom?” Ali asked Terrell as he administered a callous beating. Ali prolonged the torment until the 14th round. Media reaction to the fight was wholly negative. Jimmy Cannon, a boxing writer of the day wrote:

It was a bad fight, nasty with the evil of religious fanaticism. This wasn’t an athletic contest. It was a kind of lynching … [Ali] is a vicious propagandist for a spiteful mob that works the religious underworld.

Wilderness years

Ali’s refusal to serve in the armed forces resulted in a five-year legal struggle, during which time Ali was stripped of his title. During his exile, Ali had angered the NoI by announcing his wish to return to boxing if this was ever possible. Elijah, the supreme minister, denounced Ali for playing “the white man’s games of civilisation”. He meant sports.

Other evaluations of sport were gathering force. The black power inspired protests of John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the 1968 Olympics, combined with the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa had made clear that sport could be used to amplify the experiences of black people the world over. While Ali was a bête noir for many whites and indeed blacks, several civil rights leaders, sports performers and entertainers came out publicly in his defence. He was hailed as their champion.

Given the growing respect he was afforded, he was seen as an influential figure. Ali’s moves were monitored by government intelligence organizations; his conversations were wiretapped. But the mood of the times was changing: he was widely regarded as a martyr by the by-then formidable anti-war movement and practically anyone who felt affinity with civil rights.

His years of exile over, he returned to boxing. But prospect of a smooth transition back to the title was dashed March 1971 by Joe Frazier (see picture above)), who had taken the title in Ali’s absence and defended it with unexpected tenacity in a contest that started one of the most virulent rivalries in sport. Ali had called Frazier a “white man’s champion” and declared: “Any black man who’s for Joe Frazier is a traitor.” Ali lost once to Frazier and beat him twice over the following years, every fight being viciously fought.

Ali had to wait until 1974 before getting another chance at the world title. By this time, Ali, at 32, was not favoured; in fact, many feared for his well being against the hitherto unbeaten George Foreman. The fight in Zaire became immortalised as “The Rumble in the Jungle” and Ali emerged again as champion.

In June 1979, Ali announced his retirement from boxing. At 37, he appeared to have made a graceful exit when he moved to Los Angeles with his third wife Veronica whom he had married two years before. His first marriage lasted less than a year ending in 1966; Ali married again in 1967, again in 1977 and then in 1986 to his current wife Yolanda Williams.

Hauser estimates Ali’s career earnings to 1979 to be “tens of millions of dollars”. Yet, on his retirement, Ali was not wealthy.

Within 15 months of his retirement, Ali returned to the ring, his principal motivation being money. He also made several poor business investments and, while prolonging his sports career seemed suicidal, he managed one more fight, again ending in defeat. He was 39 and had fought 61 times.

In 1984, he disappointed his supporters when he nominally supported Ronald Reagan’s re-election bid. He also endorsed George Bush in 1988. The Republican Party’s policies, particularly in regard to affirmative action programs, were widely seen as detrimental to the interests of African Americans and Ali’s actions were, for many, tantamount to a betrayal.

London Olympics 2012: Ali as global icon.
Owen Humphreys/PA Wire

Ali’s public appearances gave substance to stories of his ill health. By 1987, he was the subject of much medical interest. Slurred speech and uncoordinated bodily movements gave rise to several theories about his condition, which was ultimately revealed as Parkinson’s syndrome. His public appearances became rarer and he became Hauser’s “benign venerated figure.”

Over a period of five decades, Ali excited a variety of responses: admiration and respect, but also condemnation. At different points in his life, he drew the adulation of young people committed to peace, civil rights and black power; and the anger of those pursuing social integration.

Ali engaged with the central issues that preoccupied America: race and war. But it would be remiss to understand him as a symbol of social healing; much of his mission was to expose and, perhaps, to deepen divisions. He preached peace, yet aligned himself with a movement that sanctioned racial separation and the subordination of women. He accepted a role with the liberal Democratic administration of Jimmy Carter, yet later sided with reactionaries, Reagan and Bush. He advocated black pride, yet disparaged and dehumanised fellow blacks. He taught the importance of self-determination, yet allowed himself to be sucked into so many doubtful business deals that he was forced to prolong his career to the point where his dignity was effaced. Like any towering symbol, he had very human contradictions.

Ellis Cashmore, Visiting Professor, Aston University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.



Q: Prince (pictured above) is the latest in an incredible series of celebrity deaths this year. The unexpected death of David Bowie was an ominous start to 2016. Since then we’ve lost Harry Potter star Alan Rickmam, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Harper Lee, Glenn Frey of the Eagles, and renowned singer Natalie Cole, among others.

A: And don’t forget Lemmy, of Motörhead, who died last December. These are all people who have, in some way, helped shape all of our lives. The impact of some, particularly Bowie, has been substantial. It’s hard to imagine anyone between the ages of, say, 50 and 70 who hasn’t been affected by him. The response to his death was one of those great “outpourings,” as we now call them, following the aftermath of the death of Princess of Diana in 1998.

Q: Hang on. Surely we’ve always grieved when famous figures have died.

A: Not so publicly. Nowadays, there’s an exhibitionist quality about our grieving. We feel almost a sense of obligation, as if we’re participating in a ritual. There’s nothing wrong or artificial about it: it’s just part of a more generic cultural shift towards expressing everything, including our innermost feelings. It reminds us that even the personal is actually social.

Q: I’m not sure exactly what you mean by that, but I assume you’re hinting that the emotions we presume are instinctive states of mind and distinguishable from our outward expressions are not as private as we think.

A: That’s pretty much it, yes. Everything we are is made possible by our participation in society.

Q: OK, let me push you towards answering a more specific question about the meaning of celebrity deaths.

A: Here’s the thing: celebrities today are not like the Hollywood stars of the 1940s or 1950s or, earlier, the great political, military or even religious leaders, all of whom stood above us on pedestals. We put them there, of course; but we were comfortable looking up to them – as if they were godlike creatures; untouchable and inaccessible. Today, celebs are just like us: we communicate with them via twitter and Instagram, we learn their “secrets,” we invest part of our own lives in theirs. In sum, we treat them as ordinary human beings, except they are in the media. We might respect some of them; others we might just like; still others we might hate. As long as they somehow elicit a reaction from us, we follow them. To use a term of today, they engage us. That’s all a celebrity needs to do.

Q: And when they die, they remind us that they’re just flesh and blood like the rest of us, right?

A: You’re ahead of me. That’s exactly right: death is the ultimate reminder of mortality. We don’t wish our celebrities to be dead, of course; but we are macabrely reassured by their passing.

Q: I guess illness functions similarly.

A: Yes. As you know, my recent book Elizabeth Taylor: A Private Life for Public Consumption approaches the star as a harbinger — a person or thing that announces or signals the approach of another era, in Taylor’s case celebrity culture. Throughout her life, she was bedeviled by serious illness. Everyone knew this because every bout of sickness was generously covered by the media. She became ill publicly. As the consummate celebrity, Taylor knew exactly how to use this to her advantage: she manipulated the media perfectly in a way designed to squeeze the maximum amount of sympathy from her public. She actually advised her friend Michael Jackson that he could exploit his own illnesses. My point is that, when we hear of the ill health of celebrities, it is, again, one of those reminders that they’re just as susceptible to sickness as anyone else. And we find that comforting. It sounds perverse, but that’s just one of a number of perversities in celebrity culture.

Celebrity afterlife

Film immortalizes more surely than human memory. This week sees the release of two films, each dealing with the life of dead people on whom we confer enduring fame. Diana, as we all know, is the already-panned biopic focusing on the last two years of the Princess’s life. Rush is about James Hunt, the F1 champion, who led an epically hedonistic life and died from a heart attack in 1993 at 45. Diana died in 1997 aged 36 after a road accident in Paris. But they both live on in the popular imagination, not in a morbid kind of way, but in a spirit of reverence and, in Diana’s case, adoration. We imagine Diana as everlastingly radiant, not as the 52-year-old she would have been had she lived. And, while Hunt would have been around the same age as Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie and Jeff Bridges – all still relevant figures, of course – we think of him as the rakishly handsome roué he was in the 1970s.

Diana and Hunt are not alone: our imaginations are full of famous figures who seem as real and relevant today as they did when they dominated the headlines. There are many, many more famous characters who we think about, not as historical figures, but as contemporary presences. “Our contact with celebrities is so limited that we view them as mirages until the one event that restores them their real physical presence, their deaths, the moment of our greatest intimacy with them,” writes the American scholar Daniel Harris in his 2008 essay “Celebrity deaths.” Harris’s argument is that the death of celebrities is “the ultimate democratic epiphany” in that, in a sudden moment of revelation, it their demise reminds us that, despite their status, they are “as liable to physical misfortunes as the best of us.”

The reaction to death serves to reinforce what Harris calls solidarity, by which I presume he means a unity or harmony that endures long after. Posthumous exposés may lay bare aspects of a celebrity’s life that may change our evaluations, but a dead person can’t actually do anything to alter a bond forged by death. Marilyn Monroe may have set a deplorable example of ostentation and promiscuity in the 1950s, but on her death she was beatified. Indeed, later revelations made her seem more a victim than she ever did in life. Elton John and Bernie Taupin memorably used T. H. White’s 1958 phrase “Candle in the wind” to capture her fragility in their 1973 song; they modified the lyric in 1997 to eulogize Princess Diana, who was also worshipped more in death than in life.

Norma Jeane Mortenson may have died, but Marilyn lived on, making hers the first death to lead to a renewal and, for this reason, the first celebrity death. (James Dean died earlier, in 1955, aged 24, and his image was borne on countless tee-shirts and posters. But his life was never probed and exhibited, and he was respected as much for the postwar rebellious spirit of youth he personified than himself.)

Wheeler Winston Dixon, a professor of film studies, observes how images of dead celebrities become frozen in time, surrounded with manufactured fantasies, immune from aging. The everlasting image of Marilyn, who like Diana, died aged 36 is of a lucent-eyed, smolderingly vivacious and affectingly shallow blonde. Her depths were plumbed only after her death. Hers was a death that guaranteed immortality. And there were others. Jimi Hendrix (1942-70), Elvis Presley (1935-77), John Lennon (1940-80) and Tupac Shakur (1971-96) were all sanctified in a secular sense. “Any negativity [about their lives] has long been digested by the popular culture – and they’ve stood the test of time,” writes historian Robert Klara.

Helping them stand the test are corporations with interests in resurrecting them via film, music and merchandise. Digital technologies have facilitated their appearance in advertising and, in the cases of Frank Sinatra (1915-98) on stage – in the form of a moving holographic image. All have been subjects of biopics, in Diana’s case several times over. Her death started a cycle of renewal as writers, film makers and corporations revived not just her image, but her existence in any exploitable form. Journalists Ross D. Petty and Denver D’Rozario have produced a cold-hearted analysis of the bonuses offered by departed: “Living celebrities are both expensive and risky … Deceased celebrities have the advantage of being both less expensive and less likely to suddenly lose popularity.”