Saturday, October 11, 2008

Falling Idols

Paul Newman passed away last week and I was quite disturbed by that news. It wasn’t so much the fact that Paul Newman died, because there had been rumors of his ailing health in the last couple of years. I was more concerned about what that implied for the near future. See, Newman was an amazing actor. He brought believability, depth and intelligence to his roles, even in the crappy movies of which there were surprisingly few. The year I was born, he came out with the classic “Cool Hand Luke” (where the phrases “No one can eat 50 eggs!” and “What we have here is a failure to communicate” came from.) I didn’t see the movie at the time it came out, but with the advent of the video age I was able to watch it and appreciate how good it was. Then when the Film Society I was part of in college put on a big screen showing of it, I was hooked on Newman. I’ve loved many of his movies- Cool Hand Luke, The Hustler, The Verdict, Hud, Torn Curtain, The Sting, Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid. They are all justifiably considered classics. Well maybe not Torn Curtain, but since that’s a Hitchcock movie, you consider it a classic by default.

Then as he got older, and supposedly less handsome, you noticed the skill in his performance. Instead of simply appreciating the rebellious, manly attitude of his character, if you are a guy, or swooning over his looks, if you are a girl, you saw the fully formed character he created. There were no discernable gimmicks and you didn’t see him “Acting!” He simply became someone else. His later roles, like The Color Of Money, Blaze, Road To Perdition, Twilight, The Hudsucker Proxy and especially Nobody’s Fool are were Paul Newman won my respect. He managed to stun me with his performances, even in movies that were full of great performances. He had become one of my favorite actors and I thought of him as an icon. That’s why his death bothered me. I’m not ready to have my icons dying off. He was about 83 years old, which is not exactly young but that isn’t too far removed from the age range of some of my other idols. Harrison Ford is getting up there in years now (he is 66 years old) and so is William Shatner (77), Steve Martin (63) and Billy Joel (59). These are people I grew up with. I am as familiar with their lives as I am with my next door neighbors', my former classmates' or my cousins' and uncles’ lives.

Newman was already a “star” by the time I was cognizant of movies and celebrities but I watched in fascination as Harrison Ford gradually become a global icon by starring in a series of movies I adored. Steve Martin has amazed me with his versatility and desire to do different things. I might even like him better as a writer, art collector and stand-up comedian than as an actor in the many bad movies he has done. Newman was diverse too. He was also a race car driver, solider, businessman and philanthropist. As for Billy Joel, he is an intrinsic part of the soundtrack of my life. One of my first concerts was Billy Joel at the Hampton Coliseum, one of my first albums was 52nd Street and I got my first radio about the time he was dominating the airwaves in the late 1970s. Heck, part of the reason I watched Bosom Buddies on television was so that I could hear the opening theme which was the Billy Joel song My Life. If Paul Newman can go, so can any one of these other guys. They might not be as relevant as they once were but these people still mean something to me. I grew up with them and I identified with them. Their impact on me is deeper than their current social relevance. If they died, it would be a bit like my innocence died, like my childhood was gone and only a bleak, depressingly short future is ahead of me.

It isn’t just my older heroes either. Last week I was listening to a couple CDs by a comedian I really liked. His name was Mitch Hedberg and he died three years ago of a drug overdose. Chris Farley and River Phoenix died the same way. Andy Gibb, Rick James and Robert Palmer died of heart failure, Kurt Cobain blew his head off with a shotgun and John Lennon was assassinated. Richard Burton died of a cerebral hemorrhage, Peter Jennings died of cancer and Maurice Gibb died of complications resulting from a twisted intestine. Death claims young people too. In fact, it is even more unexpected when that happens because you didn’t have a chance to steel yourself for the inevitable, like I had been doing for Paul Newman. The people I just mentioned were not all idols of mine; some were just examples of people I respected who died too young although I was quite impacted by Maurice Gibb. His death was bizarre, unexpected and had larger repercussions since it meant the end of the Bee Gees, which many of you may know I’ve liked through thick and thin, despite all the ridicule that entails. So it can happen to anyone at anytime which is ultimately the reason I was so sad about Paul Newman passing away. It brought home the fact that life is fragile and that I will have to start coping with the deaths of celebrities I have admired and identified with.

That’s not to say I won’t feel the same way about a death in my immediate family but so far I have been able to successfully suppress any thoughts along that line. I purposefully avoid thinking about those circumstances because it is horrible to even contemplate the possibility of something like that happening. My circle of friends and family is small enough as it is- probably less than two dozen people- so I want all of them to stick around for a good long time. With family members or close friends though, at least you can be left alone to grieve if something happens to them. People respect your wishes when you say you do not want to discuss the matter. Celebrities are considered fair game. Since their lives are public, everyone feels like it is okay to gossip about them, speculate about their deaths, give an opinion about their status and relevance and generally discuss their death for several days. “Did you hear about…” is often the way a conversation starts at work in the morning so you are forced to contemplate the meaning of someone’s passing. It would be rude not to make some kind of comment during the conversation and it would be slightly off-putting if you said you could care less about that person’s death. The bigger the celebrity, the bigger the ripples in the conversational pool. If it’s a celebrity you liked, you’re stuck. You can’t avoid thinking about them because they are being talked about the whole day long.

I don’t know if it makes me callous or just in control of my emotions but so far I have not cried when any celebrities have died. I did think about them repeatedly in those first few days after hearing the news and I reflected on what meant they meant to me but I didn’t crawl into bed for three days and weep inconsolably. It may be because they were on the outer periphery of my worship and I haven’t been dealt a real loss yet. There are a few people though that I think will really hurt me when I hear about their death. These celebrities are touchstones in my life, people I measure my accomplishments against, those that I model myself after to some extent. They are my vicarious extended family, my virtual neighbors. I think I may actually burst out in tears if I hear bad news about Billy Joel or Harrison Ford. The same might be true for Sandra Bullock, Marisa Tomei and Deborah Foreman- the triumvirate of actress I’ve followed through every movie they’ve made. William Shatner may generate some weeping because Star Trek was a cornerstone of my personal mythos. Every kid I grew up with wanted to embody one of the Star Trek characters (I was torn between Kirk and McCoy myself.) I’ve enjoyed watching Shatner go through several reincarnations- movie actor, writer, myth buster, reality show host, musician, advertising shill, and most recently award winning television actor. I can see myself in his modern renaissance man- successful and good at everything he’s done since his heyday even though he never quite recaptured that greatness or excellence a second time around.

I’m not sure if tears would flow for Steve Martin, Stephen King, Robert B. Parker, Aimee Mann, James Spader or Dennis Leary. I admire them and their work but I’ve never put a poster of them up on my wall. I doubt I would mourn any sports stars either. As a matter of physical reality, sports figures are not in the public eye for more than about ten or fifteen years so it is hard to get as attached to them as someone who keeps working in other mediums and stays visible decade after decade, like a Jack Nicholson or a Bob Dylan, neither of which I would cry over. I would be sorry to see people like Madonna, Clint Eastwood, Jeff Agoos, John Stockton or Leonard Nimoy die but I doubt I would cry. That is probably the case with a majority of celebrities. I’m pretty picky about who I get attached to.

I can only think of three other names of the top of my head that might evoke tears. Dennis DeYoung, former lead singer of Styx, already has my sympathy because of his past impact and his current situation and he would probably get my tears too if he was gone. Juliana Hatfield (41) would definitely make me cry if I lost her. I have so identified with her struggles to maintain her ideals and her efforts to get through life on her own terms that I can’t imagine her not being around to show me what to do next. Her massive insecurities despite her enormous talent make my insecurities seem small and unimportant and help me put things in perspective. If she has problems, then I know it is not just me feeling this way. It’s universal. Everyone must feel this way at some point. Her music plays on the same themes as her life. She’s a very autobiographical artist although sometimes she uses that metaphorically in her lyrics- what she’s singing may be about something other than what you think it is about. That’s part of why I am enjoying her blog. Every week or two, she writes about how one of her songs came about and what it means. Sometimes the songs are about something completely different than what everyone assumed. On top of that, she has an exceptional gift for melody and harmony so her songs are the perfect blend of music and lyrics. I couldn’t enjoy a musician simply on a lyrical level, otherwise I’d love Bob Dylan instead of the Bee Gees.

The third person is Kylie Minogue. I don’t really identify with her on a personal level, but I’ve used her music as a crutch when I need cheering up. Her dance-pop songs are upbeat, melodic, original, layered and uncomplicated. There is no lyrical depth or underlying message. It’s just feel-good music. The reason she resonates with me is because she has been so consistent. I’ve enjoyed almost every song on every album, much like I have with Billy Joel. Kylie also had a comeback moment, like many of the stars I like. She couldn’t get a hit for several years and then exploded back onto the music charts. I like people who don’t give up, who carry on and keep plugging away until they earn their second chance. Also, three years ago she suffered through breast cancer and handled herself with dignity and humility. Until that happened, I wouldn’t have thought about her dying because she is so young (40) but now it is always in the back of my mind when I hear her songs so they resonate on a more personal level than before. I know the seriousness of the disease and I worry about it. Cancer got Paul Newman last week and I’ve spent the past week thinking about what might move me to tears and why.

I’m now at that age where I’m realizing that bad things can happen to people. That has always been the case, no matter what my age was, but it isn’t until now that I’m beginning to pay attention and believe it. I’m no longer a child who has only experienced death on a movie screen. My grandmother died last year, Morfar passed away a few years back and my parents are starting to get wrinkles. Terrorists struck on 9/11 and my friend’s brother passed away this year so I see it happening around me. I feel like my life has barely begun so I’m not ready to see signs of life ending around me. I want my second act, my William Shatner rebirth. I don’t want to see my idols and heroes dying and reminding me of reality and the fleeting nature of existence. They need to remain on the screen, on the page and on the radio, immortal and inspirational. I want Butch Cassidy to run into a hail of bullets, untouched. I don’t want to see what happens five seconds after his heroic and desperate charge. Rest easy, Paul Newman and thank you for what you’ve given us. I hope no one else joins you anytime soon.

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