Sunday, November 16, 2008

Shameless: The 8 Most Egregiously Exploited Celebrity Tragedies

By Kathleen Willcox

We generally use this space to lightheartedly berate celebrities for their great variety of always amusing, sometimes charming and (hopefully) harmless peccadilloes. Actors and musicians are too-often seen as impervious to the great tragedies of life, so it's easy to titter into our tea about their ill-chosen movie roles and freewheeling games of musical beds and totally ignore the fact no, they're not merely wind-up circus monkeys put here to tickle our fancy ("dance, monkeys, dance!!"). They're human beings who sometimes encounter real catastrophes.

When Jennifer Hudson's mother, brother and nephew were murdered, it drove the point home. The media covered Hudson's misfortunes with the same glib, faux-somber, three-ring-circus enthusiasm they use when stalking the red carpet at movie premieres and award ceremonies, with that extra-special dose of schadenfreude reserved for celebrity tragedies. Especially the following eight.

8. The Murder Of Nancy Spungen


Poor, nauseating Nancy. Last month marked the 30th anniversary of her death and the soon-after implosion of the punk scene she formed an equally symbiotic and exploitive relationship. Her murder (or was it a suicide?), oft-believed at the hands of lover Sid Vicious (who overdosed a few months later), like her life, looked like a particularly noisy blip on the cacophonous music scene. But looking back, the vicious backlash against the already calumniated punk world directly resulted from a self-consciously bourgeois display of horror at her bloody, crusty demise in the crumbling Chelsea Hotel. From the get-go, Nancy seemed to think the whole world had it out for her, and the one little pocket she thought accepted her as a runaway, prostitute and junkie eventually spurned her too. In the end, she won though. The scene didn't want her, even openly mocked her, in the end killed her, and then her death symbolically killed it.

7. The Saga Of Christian Brando


Just ask the Crawfords and the Barrymores (and someday, the Jacksons and the Spears): when Mommie or Daddy dearest is in the spotlight and perhaps just a tad batshit, your childhood's gonna be a bitch. Chances are, humiliating debacles that could be swept under the rug in a "normal" family will become front-page news, compounding their significance and making the possibility of future stability inversely proportional to the amount of coverage the incidents receive. For no one does this truism hold as steady as with Christian Brando, Marlon Brando's understandably unhappy progeny. From an early age, Christian was shuffled between his sexpot/wacky activist/violent father and his boozehound/pill-popping/violent mother, the actress and hippie Anna Kashfi. Finally, after a protracted custody battle that the media and public followed with a degree of interest generally reserved for world wars and cataclysmic natural disasters, Marlon won custody. That's when things really started to unravel for the 13-year-old. Mom's friends kidnapped him; they hightailed it to Mexico; Marlon hired a P.I. and nabbed him back; Christian developed a disturbing affinity for the bottle; he drunkenly shot and killed his pregnant half-sister Cheyenne's abusive lover, Dag Drollet; Cheyenne commited suicide; he was accused of being involved in the murder of Bonnie Lee Bakley, Robert Blake's wife and Christian's lover; and he got married and divorced. On January 26 of this year, he died of pneumonia at 49 years old, giving every cheesy rag on the planet yet one more excuse to drag out the old chestnuts and befoul his name and character while his family and friends mourned his passing.

6. The Manson/Sharon Tate Murders


Life seemed to imitate art for Sharon Marie Tate, or at least according to the bloodthirsty media and willfully gullible public after her brutal murder at the hands of Charles Manson's gang of thugs in 1969. The model/actress' rise to stardom with her kitschy, insta-cult status turn in the deliciously drug-addled Valley Of The Dolls and relationship with troubled arthouse auteur Roman Polanski fueled speculation about their "untraditional" and "modern" (read: a slut-tastic drug-fest and dirty thumb in the eye to respectable folk everywhere) marriage. Tate was eight months pregnant when she was stabbed to death, but that didn't stop the media from spreading scurrilous, laughable rumors that she worshiped Beelzebub, participated in orgies and shot/smoked/snorted drugs. By the time Manson and his followers were arrested with charges that stuck, months had gone by, and the damage to Tate's reputation was done.

5. The Slaying Of Jennifer Hudson's Family


The shameless, exploitative, almost prurient coverage of the string of murders in Hudson's family epitomize the problems the media face and create when writing about a celebrity's misfortune. When her mother, brother and nephew were murdered, the press swooped in with all of the transparently phony sympathy, demands for justice and the latent but palpable "she didn't deserve an Oscar" snipes. Every aspect of the funeral was covered, no matter how grim and morbid, fom the colors of the coffins, to details which casket she turned to first, to the design of the funeral "tickets" (it was a private event). Like every other aspect of celebrity life (from underwear choices to gas problems) that's breathlessly covered by even the most old-school broadsheets, death in Hollywoodland seems to be as much (more?) fun for us as watching a gaggle of schnookered starlets weave their way out of the S Bar to their waiting limos on TMZ.

4.The Kidnapping Of Frank Sinatra Jr.


The bizarre and exceedingly brief kidnapping of Ol Blue Eyes' loin fruit was like one of Robin And The 7 Hoods' ill-planned last-minute plot twists, except much more convoluted and imbecilic. The 19-year-old Frank was nabbed at a hotel in Lake Tahoe by two bumbling parka-clad gunmen who posed as room-service waiters. Naturally, the incident was tackled by the press with the same restraint and discipline Jaws displayed during kiddie time at the beach. Two days after his capture, he was released when Frank Sr. coughed up $240,000, but Frank Jr.'s fledgling music career pretty much tanked thanks to the inexplicably hostile press coverage that accused him, without a shred of evidence, of masterminding the scheme. Since then, his career has foundered, partially due to his bratty antics (e.g. storming out of The Howard Stern Show just moments before a scheduled interview and after throwing various office accouterments about the studio), but also partially due to the old "he's riding on his father's coattails" indictment.

3. The Lana Clarkson Shooting (AKA The Phil Spector Case)


Testimony has opened in the murder trial of the madcap, intense and frequently mendacious architect of the Wall Of Sound. Phil Spector is accused of shooting actress Lana Clarkson in a bizarre incident at his home that he claims was suicide ("she kissed the gun!"). Clarkson was indubitably in a downward spiral (though she didn't fall from the loftiest precipice). She got her big break starring in B-movie king Roger Corman's monuments to T&A tomfoolery like Death Stalker and "the original Xena," Barbarian Queen, but Clarkson skidded tits-first into her 30s toward a career that softened faster than a crate of bruised peaches left out in the sun. At 40, she was swilling booze, popping Vicodin and working as a hostess at the aptly named House of Blues in L.A. One night, Spector walked in, the two ended up at his mansion, proceeded to drink brandy and tequila and light candles and then… who knows? Spector's defense team is doing an excellent job of painting Clarkson as a desperate, suicidal, over-the-hill hot mess, but he's not exactly coming out looking like a staid, respectable member of the Hollywood elite. To accomplish that, a first step would be leaving his long-tailed black suit coat, rose-tinted glasses and four-inch heels at home. Just sayin'.

2. The Nicole Brown Simpson/Ronald Goldman Slaying (AKA The O.J. Simpson Case)


Thanks to the sensationalistic coverage of the Simpson trial, Nicole's name conjures up glossy images of a glamorous, laughing, free-wheeling blond who may have lived her life just a bit too close to the fire. She was the epitome of a certain American dream—the homecoming princess who marries a football star and then stays home to raise their children—but was stabbed to death on June 13, 1994, along with Ronald Goldman, while her children slept in another room. Her ex-husband, O.J. Simpson, was arrested, charged and acquitted in a trial that was part sex scandal/part divisive, masked battle over race/part gleeful gossip session. The media mostly chose to focus on titillating, entertaining and frankly irrelevant details of the case (e.g. the "scandalous" photos of a nude Nicole in a hot tub with Brett Shaves, whom she dated briefly after divorcing Simpson). There was hardly a story written that didn't mention the short black dress she was wearing, the romantic music playing and the lit candles found at her murder scene, all of which served to imply that Nicole was a bit of a hussy, a bit too easy with her "friendships" (especially with children in the house!), and while she might not deserve to be murdered... well, the media left the divided public to fill in that blank.

1. Marilyn Monroe's Suicide


Celebrity overdoses/suicides are a dime a dozen, but none approaches the dark poetry of Marilyn Monroe's death. Born Norma Jeane Mortenson and raised in a series of foster homes, she hauled herself up by her tightly bound pink corset and offered herself, body and soul—tragically, beautifully, knowingly, credulously—to a public that couldn't believe its luck. Like most almost religiously revered stars, people for whom the term itself was coined, Monroe was eventually reviled even when she was alive because of the very bubbly, quasi-innocent, effusive sensuality she was worshipped for. She struggled publicly through three failed marriages, countless affairs, chronic dumb-blond typecasting, mental instability and prescription drug addiction. No one could get enough, and much like train-wrecks du jour Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan, the sillier her behavior, the more enthralled they became. An inveterate attention whore, Monroe hazily submitted to the encroaching flood waters, scheduling a whirlwind of semi-nude photo shoots and painfully honest interviews in the weeks leading up to her death. At her last significant public appearance, she sang "Happy Birthday, Mr. President" to JFK. Weeks later, she was found dead from an overdose of barbiturates. She offered herself to us before she could possibly know just how much we would take from her, but it's doubtful Norma Jeane would have had it any other way.

Original here

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