Monday, June 29, 2009
The old superstition goes that celebrities die in groups, and oddly enough, history seems to bear that out. Over the past week or so, we have all been made aware of the deaths of four iconic personalities. First, Johnny Carson’s beloved, comic wingman, Ed McMahon. Then a few days later, actor and cheesecake poster girl Farrah Fawcett, followed by the enigmatic and tragic pop king, Michael. Then, just yesterday, the news came down that pitch man, Billy Mays had died suddenly. While Billy may not be a “star”, not nearly as famous as the other three, he has undeniably been a larger than life fixture on cable television for at least two decades; with his unmistakable, booming voice and overly-dyed, black beard, convincing even the most skeptical among us of the merits of Oxy-Clean, Mighty Mend-it and the Awesome Auger. He is being remembered by those who knew him as a good man and an excellent husband and father, noble attributes that too many fail to achieve in these trying times we live in.
Whenever we hear of untimely death, it tends to force an uneasy examination of ourselves, and also of the human condition. We cannot help but compare ourselves to the deceased: our own age, health, lifestyle, and perhaps how close to the end of our own earthly sojourn we think we may be, as well as how ready we are(or, are not) to face that eventuality. The shocking, sudden finality of unexpected passing gets our attention in a way that few other events in life are capable of doing. This kind of reflection is a good thing, I think. In this fast-paced, over stimulated, information overloaded rat race world, taking pause for a little quiet self-examination is a rare and valuable occurrence.
The death among these four that has affected me the most is probably that of Michael Jackson. While “Thriller” and “Off the Wall” made my feet tap and my body sway, I cannot say that I would qualify as a big fan of his music. He was, undoubtedly, a genius in the world of music production and perhaps, even more so as a choreographer and performer. Those were not the things I thought about, though, as I watched him onstage, or in interviews.
Like so many others, I watched the Martin Bashir interviews a few years ago, just before Michael's indictment on the molestation charges, and again last night when they were rebroadcast. The thing I was most struck by was not his talent, his weirdness, his great wealth or his opulent lifestyle, but how very fragile and damaged a human being he was. It has been said that extreme indulgence in plastic surgery is a sign of self-loathing and it is easy to believe, looking at his ravaged countenance. There was no vestige of the adorable boy who sang “ABC” with his brothers. His hair, facial features, and even his skin color, radically altered, as if he had tried to destroy any remnant of that tortured, little person who had been forced to sacrifice his youth on the altar of fame. As he spoke in a gentle voice about the fear and anxiety of his childhood, growing up in a bizarre family under the alleged, violent tutelage of his father, amid the constant harassment and violation of the paparazzi, his psychic pain was palpable. His eyes, swathed in black eyeliner, still showed the intense sorrow of that young boy, beset by forces he never understood and had no control over.
He trusted Mr. Bashir as he had few others: enough to bring him into the sheltered world he had created for himself, and to speak candidly about his life and his personal demons. In the end, his trust was betrayed again when the interviewer seemed to turn against him after profiting handsomely from their association.
I have to say that I never believed the charges of child abuse and pedophilia that were brought against him. The mothers who accused him were, by most accounts, less than honorable people with nothing to lose and too much to gain by bringing convenient charges against a billionaire star. With a few, drooling lawyers thrown into the mix, the public feeding frenzy was on. Any chance of assumption of innocence seemed to go out the window for most people. “Yeah, he’s weird, he’s freaky looking, he’s filthy rich…he’s not like me and I can’t relate to him at all, so he probably did it.” Although the jury acquitted him, I think it’s safe to say that his reputation and his spirit were both irreparably damaged.
When I look at the photos of rooms filled with toys and life-sized statues of cartoon characters, I don’t see the tools of a conniving child molester; I see the trappings of a childhood imagined and longed for, but never experienced. He surrounded himself with children at play, because that is how he saw himself in his dreams. He was Peter Pan, the boy who didn’t grow up. His Neverland Ranch is a testament to the unfulfilled desires of a child spirit, cruelly grown into an adult’s shell, to yet have what had always been denied him: a happy childhood of innocence and wonder. He still longed for that safe harbor where loving parents would nurture and protect him, and help him to grow up strong. He didn’t understand the hard truth that innocence lost can never be regained, and that we humans are basically a mean, cynical lot, slow to understand and show compassion, but ever quick to judge.
These four people who have passed on in recent days were all icons, of greater or lesser degree: people who lived much of their lives in the public eye. They follow a long line of stars, now gone ahead of us, those such as Marilyn, Elvis, Janis, John Lennon, Marvin Gaye and Heath Ledger. We were privy to many of their personal trials and tribulations, as well as their careers and the bodies of work they produced. They were, after all, public figures, and we, the public went along for the vicarious ride: rubber-necking, applauding, laughing, salivating, and condemning…always, judging. Yes, they profited from their high-visibility careers. They also paid a high price for their fortune and fame.
If my fairy godmother arrived this evening, offering me wealth and stardom, honestly, I would decline it. If I could choose to have only the wealth while maintaining my comfortable anonymity, great...I have nothing against becoming rich, in fact, I have no doubt it would bring me great joy and solve most of my problems, while also allowing me to do a lot of good for others. But the freedom to live my life as I choose, without fear of being watched, followed and judged by the masses is more valuable to me than all the riches in the world. I think that very few of us could hold up well under the relentless glare of the spotlight. Living with the awful certainty of having one’s every word, every move scrutinized, second guessed and picked apart in the media is a cross that I for one, am definitely not willing to bear. In my mind, no amount of money could possibly compensate for that kind of existence.
Rest in peace (finally), Ed, Billy, Farrah, and Michael