In the wake of the recent deaths of such icons as Robin Williams, Lauren Bacall, and Joan Rivers, I have been thinking of the many beloved stars who have come and passed on the silver screen. In this reminiscing, I was also reminded of the many talented actors whose careers were tragically cut short before their time. In honor of the many stars who have made their way into our hearts only to leave this life too soon, I have written this tribute to four stars whose outstanding work has and will continue to live on despite their premature deaths.
JAMES DEAN: Despite the fact that his career consisted of only three leading roles, James Dean has become an icon of disillusioned youth and 50’s glamour. Like many actors who began their film careers during the 1950’s, Dean was a devoted follower of Method-style acting that was popularized in America by Lee Strasberg. While many actors of his generation utilized the Method, however, few were able to do so in a way that was as raw or riveting. After several walk on parts and extra roles, Dean finally found his breakout role in the 1955 World War I family saga East of Eden. When the film’s director, Elia Kazan, set out to cast the part of under-appreciated son Cal in 1953, he said that he wanted to find, “another Brando”, and discovered just that in the young Dean. After stealing the picture through his mulit-layered and sympathetic portrayal of troubled Cal, he went on to star in the equally compelling films Rebel Without A Cause and Giant, both of which were filmed in 1955. While his role as angst ridden new kid in town Jim Stark remains his best remembered, he reportedly preferred his work in the supporting role of a wealthy oil tycoon nursing bitterness over a past unrequited love in Giant. Through his work in Giant, Dean hoped to break away from the tormented young men he had built his career playing and move on to more mature and varied parts. During filming of Rebel he also began to pursue an interest in auto racing, which developed into a true passion. Unfortunately, audiences never did see the rising actor fulfill the promise of his first roles, as his life was tragically cut short. While driving on California’s State Route 46, Dean’s vehicle was struck head on by a vehicle that had crossed into his lane at eighty-five miles per hour. The impact of the crash left Dean trapped within the vehicle with his foot lodged between the gas and the break and caused him to suffer a broken neck as well as numerous internal and external injuries. He was pronounced dead on arrival at Paso Robles War Memorial Hospital; he was twenty four years old and had yet to see either the release of Giant, or his Oscar nominations for his roles in East of Eden and Giant. In the years since his tragic death, audiences have realized just how great the loss of this young actor was for American cinema with Dean becoming an icon of classic cool. In only three films, James Dean accomplished more than most actors do in a lifetime as he made complexity cool and cynicism sexy, all while providing a disillusioned generation with a role model who genuinely understood their fears, frustrations, and ambitions. No matter how many tough guys come and go on the silver screen, there will forever be only one James Dean.
JEAN HARLOW: Long before Betty Grable, Marilyn Monroe, Pamela Anderson and Scarlett Johannsen, there was a wisecracking dame who brought the words ‘blonde bombshell’ into the American vocabulary; Jean Harlow. Harlow received her first major role in 1930 in Howard Hughes’ World War I aviation epic, Hell’s Angels. In the notoriously risqué film, Harlow debuted her newly dyed platinum blonde hair and the infamous line “Would it shock you if I were to put on something more comfortable”. Although critics panned her performance, audiences couldn’t get enough of the snappy blonde and she quickly developed a devoted following. She went on to appear in a series of films that capitalized on her newfound fame as a screen vamp, but quickly grew tired of the brash persona that the studio had labeled her with, saying “must I always wear a low-cut dress to be important?”. She was finally able to rise above typecasting when the advent of the Hays Code in 1934 prevented studios from writing the racy parts that she had previously been relegated to. While the restrictions of the code hampered the careers of many 30’s stars, those same restrictions actually provided Harlow with the artistic freedom that she had been craving, and enabled her to improve upon and test her range as an actress. The films she made during these years prove that she was far more than a mere pretty face with a striking hairstyle and was actually a gifted comedic actress. In 1936, Harlow began complaining about health concerns such weight gain, sunburns, fatigue, nausea, and abdominal pain, but her doctors concluded that she was simply feeling the after effects of a particularly serious bout of influenza. By 1937 her health began to seriously decline, as her body swelled to twice its normal size and she became so fatigued that she was barely able to maintain her work schedule. After being in and out of hospital care for several months, Harlow entered a coma while shooting her final film, Saratoga, and was admitted to Good Samaritan Hospital where she was diagnosed with kidney failure. It is now believed that the dye she used to obtain her infamous hair color may have contributed to her illness, as its combination of bleach and ammonia combined to create hydrochloric acid, a chemical that is poisonous after chronic exposure. Harlow was pronounced dead on June 7, 1937 at age twenty-six.; even if she had been diagnosed earlier, the limited medical treatments of the 1930’s would not have been able to treat her condition. In her twenty-six years, Jean Harlow lived through more triumphs and tragedies than many people do in a century. She was also a multifaceted artist who left behind twenty one starring films ranging from drama to slapstick, as well as a posthumously published novel. Harlow once said, “I’m not a born actress. No one knows that better than I”, whether she was born with her talent or cultivated it, there is no denying that she was an endlessly fascinating actress without whom cinema would be much less entertaining.
RIVER PHOENIX: Child actor turned emerging star River Phoenix remains a haunting example of the dangerous excesses that often accompany a life on camera. After surviving a childhood living under the oppressive rules of the Children of God cult, River Phoenix was spotted by a top child actors’ agent while pan-handling on the streets of Los Angeles with his siblings. Following his chance discovery, he began his career on a series of television commercials and quickly moved on to made for television movies and several short-lived series. After several years of performing in forgettable projects, he found his break-out role in the 1986 coming of age drama Stand By Me. Although already fifteen at the time of production, Phoenix perfectly captured the contradictory adolescent desires to grow up while still grasping onto the remains of childhood as tormented tough Chris Chambers. He followed up his success in Stand By Me with Peter Weir’s family drama The Mosquito Coast, in a role that eerily mirrored his own childhood as he portrayed a teen forced to live in increasingly desperate circumstances when his parents relocate to South America to join a cult. Despite Phoenix’s belief in the project, the film ultimately proved to be a critical and commercial failure. He returned to top form, however, with his Oscar nominated turn in the 1988 drama Running On Empty, in which he portrayed the teen son of domestic terrorists on the run from the FBI. He continued in a series of successful roles into the early 1990’s which culminated in the Venice Film Festival, National Society of Film Critics, and Independent Spirit Award winning role as an adolescent prostitute in the Generation X take on Shakespeare’s Henry IV, My Own Private Idaho. During this time, Phoenix also pursued his first love, music, and contributed to the soundtracks of several of his films and also invested in the founding of the original House of Blues in Cambridge, MA. He also participated in extensive work on behalf of animal rights as a spokesman for PETA. He further helped animal rights by buying 800 acres of Costa Rican rainforest for preservation and donating to numerous animal rights charities. Unfortunately, Phoenix’s success masked his losing battle with drugs and alcohol. On the night of October 30, 1993, Phoenix collapsed and began convulsing outside of a nightclub in which his friend, Johnny Depp, was performing. Despite efforts to resuscitate him, he was pronounced dead at Sinai-Cedar Medical Center of cardiac arrest at age 23. Toxicology tests later determined that he had suffered an overdose of cocaine and heroin that ultimately lead to heart failure. During his all too short career, Phoenix proved to critics that he was more than just another child star as he matured into increasingly complex roles while still pursuing a burgeoning music career and doing his part to give back through environmental activism. At the end of Stand By Me, the narrator says of Phoenix’s character, “Although I hadn’t seen him in more than ten years, I know I’ll miss him forever”; so too will audiences continue to miss Phoenix’s electrifying presence as the years go on.
HEATH LEDGER: From teen heartthrob to independent film sensation, Heath Ledger was an emerging master of his craft. Inspired by his older sister’s stage performances and his love of Gene Kelly films, Ledger journeyed across Australia to pursue an acting career upon graduating high school at age 17. In Sydney, he embarked upon a television career with parts on several programs, including the wildly successful soap opera Home and Away, before making his film debut in the 1997 crime drama, Blackrock. He gained international notice in his first starring role in the American romantic-comedy 10 Things I Hate About You in which he played a high school outcast who charms a shrewish classmate. His career continued to thrive with such roles as a teen trying to survive the American Revolution in The Patriot, a medieval knight with a Gen X attitude in A Knight’s Tale, and a British soldier turned pacifist attempting to find redemption in the remake of the A. E. W. Mason classic, The Four Feathers. Ledger’s most acclaimed role came in the 2005 western/romance Brokeback Mountain, in which he played a ranch hand struggling to maintain his family life while leading a double life in a homosexual love affair with an aspiring rodeo rider. For his work as the tormented Ennis Del Mar in Brokeback Mountain Ledger earned a New York Critics Circle Award, a San Francisco Film Critics Award, a Golden Globe Award, and an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. He followed up his mainstream success with a return to independent films as a heroin addict trying to kick his addiction in Candy, and an incarnation of 1960’s folk icon Bob Dylan in I’m Not There. He also began to pursue an interest in directing, and after directing several music videos turned his attention to beginning work on a documentary and a feature film. His final mainstream success came with his chilling take on the Joker in The Dark Knight. Unfortunately, before the release of The Dark Knight, Ledger was discovered unconscious and not breathing in his apartment by his housekeeper, Teresa Solomon. Solomon immediately called Ledger’s friend, former child star Mary Kate Olson, and his masseuse, Diana Wolozin called 911. Paramedics arrived at the apartment moments later, but were unable to revive him. A toxicology report identified oxycodone, hydrocodone, diazepam, temazepam, doxylamine, and alprazolam in his blood stream. Police reported that Ledger had been taking the drugs for treatment of anxiety, insomnia, pain, and a recent bout of pneumonia. Authorities were not able to determine if the drugs were prescribed to the actor or if they had been purchased illegally, leading to suspicion falling on Olson as Ledger’s possible drug connection, as she had also been known to abuse drugs. Controversy continued to hang over Ledger’s death as his will had not been updated to include his daughter, Matilda, or her mother Ledger’s ex-girlfriend and Brokeback Mountain co-star Michelle Williams and several of his relatives came forward to contest the legality of the will. At age twenty-nine, Ledger was just beginning to scratch the surface of the success that he possessed the talent and potential to achieve. While his death remains an alarming example of the dangers of prescription drug abuse, his true legacy will be the impact of his work both on and off camera.