Every other Tuesday in Storied, K. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.
I remember well the death of Brittany Murphy. She was bright, bubbly, young, and talented. As the character Tai in 1995’s Clueless (a modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Emma), she was a staple of high school sleepovers—the baby-faced makeover project of Alicia Silverstone’s Cher. She played the character as someone we could all relate to, someone we all wanted to be just like. In Clueless and other projects, she was quirky, vibrantly funny, versatile, and in 2009 it seemed her career was just gaining steam—having proved through critically acclaimed turns in films like Girl, Interrupted and 8 Mile that she was more than a pretty face and a comedic actress. And then, she died. She was thirty-two years old.
Heath Ledger died the year before, in 2008, at the age of twenty-eight. He was at the height of his career, in the middle of shooting The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus and fresh off the set of The Dark Knight. Like Brittany Murphy, for my generation Ledger was an icon of ‘90s film culture. As the lovably Tall, Dark, and Handsome mystery man (er, teenager) opposite Julia Stiles’s “shrew” in 1999’s 10 Things I Hate about You (a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew), he was the embodiment of teen angst and the sort of male earnestness so many of us romantic souls sought during our teen years. His performance touched on something timeless, which is why 10 Things I Hate about You transcends the ‘90s zeitgeist. Ledger, like Murphy, wanted to be known for more than just rom-coms, and in the roles he chose following 10 Things, his versatility as a method actor revealed the depths of his talent and caused critics and fans alike to speculate on the future of his career.Chadwick Boseman did what people with chronic and terminal illnesses do all the time: he went on living for as long as he could.
Death is always tragic; death of a young person interrupts. We understand what an average human lifespan is supposed to be, so when a death occurs far before old age, we are left shocked, wondering what could have been. Deaths of young celebrities like Brittany Murphy and Heath Ledger lead to a collective shock and grief because of the unique roles performers hold in society. We take collective ownership of performers, especially those who embody fictional characters. Actors and actresses are like imaginary friends—we invite them into our lives through our television screens, and they tell us stories. This faux intimacy endears them to us, generating entire subcultures around the admiration (and sometimes worship) of people who are otherwise strangers. People who are, after all, just as fragile as we are.
We don’t like to be reminded of the fragility of life, especially when that fragility breaks someone who seems to be so full of joy. Robin Williams’s death by suicide sent shockwaves through not only the entertainment industry, but through a large and loyal fanbase who couldn’t comprehend what had driven the famed comedian to take his own life. (A year after his death, his widow revealed that he had been suffering from a degenerative form of dementia.) Williams was only sixty-three when he died in 2014, and his loss left a yawning chasm behind of comedic (and dramatic) talent that would never be filled in quite the same way ever again.
Perhaps the least well-known of my list, Anton Yelchin, died in 2016 at the young age of twenty-seven—his death the result of a tragic accident involving a defect in his car’s gear shift. Yelchin began his acting career as a child and had already starred in over twenty films by the time of his death, including the classic role of Chekov in the Star Trek reboot film trilogy and a young Kyle Reese in Terminator: Salvation. He was an actor, it seemed, who could do anything: star in big-budget blockbusters, take on comedic roles, do horror, hold his own in serious drama productions opposite Oscar winners, or even do musicals (he sang in his own band, as well). Anton Yelchin was a performer in whom there was so much obvious potential. But he died alone, in his driveway, pinned against a brick pillar. And when I heard about his death, I wept.
Carrie Fisher was in the middle of reprising her role as General Leia Organa (formerly Princess Leia) in the revitalized Star Wars trilogy that began with 2015’s The Force Awakens when she passed away unexpectedly in 2016 at the age of sixty. She had already shot scenes for the second film in the trilogy, The Last Jedi, but would obviously be unable to finish the intended story arc for her character in The Rise of Skywalker. Fisher was one of my inspirations when I was a young girl looking for female role models in the action adventure movies I loved so much. She gave me hope that a girl could hold her own with the boys and still “get the boy.” She didn’t have to choose between being feminine and being tough. That’s what Carrie Fisher did for me.
Of course, the most recent celebrity death—and probably the most affecting, giving its timing, cultural significance, and context—is Chadwick Boseman, who passed away just last month from colon cancer at the age of forty-three. Nobody outside his immediate friends and family knew he was sick—had been sick for four years, and was sick unto death. Much has been made of Boseman’s perseverance through his illness to film several high-profile, grueling movie roles, including Marvel’s King T’Challa in Black Panther and the ensemble Marvel films that followed it, but Boseman did what people with chronic and terminal illnesses do all the time: he went on living for as long as he could. This included working his job, which by all appearances and accounts gave him fulfillment and joy, even when it was hard. And I have no doubt that it was excruciatingly hard to continue his work while fighting stage three, and eventually stage four, cancer.
I think what people are most astonished by with Chadwick Boseman is the simple fact that we did not know. And we felt, for some reason, as though we should have. As a society, we take collective ownership of celebrities because of the roles they play, and the way in which we invite them into our lives is no small thing. When Chadwick Boseman passed away, parents across the internet lamented that they would have to tell their children that their favorite superhero had died. A lament went up loud and clear and painful in the Black community across America—and it was a worthy lament for him.
Chadwick Boseman brought Black joy and superheroism to the big screen for the first time in a starring, title role—challenging the status quo and demonstrating to a generation of Black children and adults alike that they didn’t have to accept a colonized take on their own stories. I wanted to be Princess Leia when I was a little girl; her mixture of femininity and power in a male-dominated world meant something to me. We know there will never be another Chadwick Boseman, another Heath Ledger, another Carrie Fisher. We should mourn such losses for what they are: the deaths not just of performers but also the loss of further stories they—and only they—could have told.
But let us remember, too, that these people were sons and daughters, husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, partners, and co-laborers on this Earth. Although extraordinary, they were also as ordinary as any of us, and they didn’t really belong to us. They didn’t owe us the private details of their lives, illness, joys, or struggles, and what they shared with us was a gift. Just like us, their days were numbered and precious in God’s sight—their lives mattered.
Their entertainment value did not define their worth, and they were not commodities for our consumption. We can appreciate the legacies they have left us in the stories they carried into our lives, even as we lament that there will be no new ones. As with all deaths, this side of eternity, we don’t get to know why—but we can look forward with longing for the day when death will be no more.