It is often said by insensitive hacks like me that death can be an outstanding career move. With the death of Heath Ledger - handsome, talented, young, promising - one can't help but speculate whether he will be bathed in immortal glory like so many others who died young.
My guess is no. Before I explain why, let's look at the King and Queen of actors who died young, and whose legend far outpaced their actual accomplishments.
Dean is the King. He is a true Hollywood immortal, despite making only 3 movies (he was posthumously nominated for an Oscar in 2 of them). One was a classic (Rebel without a Cause), and the other two were greatly admired in their day but rarely watched today (East of Eden and Giant).
How is this for an unscientific (but still useful) comparison: I googled "James Dean" and got 7.1 million hits. "Paul Newman" - who made 80 more movies and has lived (so far) 60 more years - only turned up 4.6 million.
If Dean is the King, Marilyn's the Queen. 15 million google hits on "Marilyn Monroe", who was the Pamela Lee Anderson of her time (but with better taste in men). She made a handful of well-known movies, but was never nominated for an Oscar. While moments like this are known to all, few people under 70 can tell you what movie it actually came from.
Despite this rather thin resume, she is probably the most famous actress who ever lived - an unlikely scenario, if she still walked among us.
What About Heath?
Heath seems like a contender for a halo. He was ridiculously handsome. Admired by critics. Like Dean, he starred in a culturally important film. He seemed to make choices based more on art than commerce. He had a set of stones, as evidenced by his decision to play the Joker after Jack's iconic performance. And let's face it: Australians are cool.
But my guess is that, in time, Ledger will be as forgotten as River Phoenix (1.2m on Google). Phoenix had a similar resume: a short but impressive film career (including an Oscar nomination), Byronic good looks, and a far more "romantic" death (Johnny Depp's Viper Room vs. Mary Kate Olson's bedroom, without Mary Kate?* No contest). But he's rarely spoken of today, and I doubt the average college student even knows who he is ("Um, is he like Joaquin Phoenix's brother?")
The problem is Celebrity Inflation. In Dean's and Monroe's day, there were far fewer celebrities, and we knew far less about them. Today, with so many "stars" and so much information about them, who can keep track? US Weekly's home page has a list of 30 top celebrities, and I haven't even heard of some of them. Heidi Montag? Lauren Conrad? Spencer Pratt? Who are these people? I've heard of Nick Lachey, but I'm not really sure why he's famous. I think he dates other famous people.
There are so many "hot" celebrities - some created by reality shows, some who make sex tapes, some who do genuinely good work (the entire cast of Sopranos, anyone?). We are constantly told of the next new thing who is taking the world by storm (Keira Knightley! Daniel Radcliffe! Shia LaBeouf! Zac Efron!*) In Dean's day, there was, what, maybe 2 talks shows that interviewed actors? Today there are a dozen or more. And every guest on every one of these shows is a "celebrity".
Plus, we know far too much about them. See pictures of them getting their coffee, on vacation, pushing strollers. We see before and after plastic surgery shots. There is no sense of mystery anymore.
With such Celebrity Inflation, even the giant celebrities of today (George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Tom Hanks) have trouble competing with the legends of yesteryear (John Wayne, Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant). So I can't see Heath Ledger hanging with James Dean on the Boulevard of Broken Dreams.
Then again, he looks really good in The Dark Knight. That could change everything...
* my wife tells me that early reports about the apartment belonging to an Olson twin were false. But I just couldn't let go of the Viper Room line...
Sidebar: Ledger's 2000 film, The Patriot, was the biggest cinematic disappointment of my life. For reasons I can't explain, there has never been a truly great movie about the American Revolution. Countless great films about Vietnam and WWII and a handful about the Civil War, but not a single one about the American Revolution. When it was announced that Mel Gibson, in his first historical movie since Braveheart, was joining with Robert Rodat, the screenwriter of Saving Private Ryan, on a Revolutionary War flick, expectations soared. But alas, the world still awaits a great film about the Revolution.
Also, we've had hundreds of great films about cops, but none about firefighters. I do have a theory about that, though: fires have no plot.