When a famous person dies, it’s easy to forget they were ever a real person. Especially if they die in tragic circumstances, then their life becomes a screenplay option. But are certain celebrities, like Robin Williams, more deserving of respect than others?
Earlier this year, as no one has been allowed to forget since, Peaches Geldof died at home of a drug overdose. Like mother, like daughter, was the sentiment insinuated from the sofas of morning television across the broadcasting landscape. Her life was examined in close detail, as well as her abilities as a mother. Many condemned her decision to take drugs while she was looking after her baby and then selfishly dying, while the other half declared her a tragic heroine who had a difficult life and struggled with her addiction before succumbing to it.
Peaches’ whole life was played out in public, and so her death was regarded as part of the public domain as well. Everyone has an opinion and can happily scroll through the Daily Fail sidebar of shame before announcing their opinion on her life and death. Because it’s easy to forget she was a real person; after all, she put herself up for examination. How could she, or her family, then demand some semblance of a private life? We don’t just want to see people smiling and enjoying life, we want to see the dirt, and examine the suspicious white residue around their nostrils, taken with a super zoom lens from a car parked across the road from their house. We want to hear their PA’s inside info, what the arguments are like with their partner, what time they get up and whether they can remember how much they have in their bank account. We buy their products and watch them on TV so does that mean we own a little bit of them? Are we entitled to gawp at every aspect of their existence and pass judgement, safe in the knowledge that no one is doing the same to us.
When I was young the only goal I had was to be famous. Super famous. Marilyn Monroe famous. I couldn’t see how you could live without that, they seemed like the only real people around, their nights out documented as they attended film premieres looking glamorous and happy. Everyone else was unknowable, faceless, grey, mere static doodles on the post-it note of life. The big stars were fully realised portraits, depicted in glorious technicolour. Things are different now, there are stars who have no considerable talent apart from being able to hold the attention, whether through charisma or their ability to appal large numbers of people. It’s a real double edged sword though; along with money and infamy they get disrespect and no privacy. Anytime they go on holiday they are pictured and judged as too fat or too thin, whenever they get married to a bricklayer who turns out to be a gold digging druggie git, the media doesn’t offer sympathy or help, instead it puts a hidden camera in their bathroom and laughs at their misfortune. Now I can’t think of anything worse, or more damaging, than being really famous.
No one is ever really surprised when these stars implode in spectacular, but depressing ways and ends up dead or (perhaps more unluckily) in rehab. Nothing is more disappointing than a story that never ends, or goes on too long and becomes boring. Papers need dramatic twists and satisfactory conclusions. When it’s someone with a bit more gravitas, a discernible and respected talent, it’s a bit more of a shock. Robin Williams had struggled with drug dependance and depression for years, a fact that wasn’t exactly hidden, but his death this week still came as an unexpected surprise. Not least because he hadn’t been in the press much over the last few years and when he was, there was always a tone of deference used, radically different from the mocking tone that goes hand in hand with press about celebrities deemed less worthy. His death was met with people discussing their childhoods in film, growing up with him as part of their lives, before the speculation over his apparent suicide began.
I remember seeing Mrs Doubtfire at the cinema and loving it, then realising he was a proper actor as well: his performance in Good Morning Vietnam was perfect; his humour and despair entwined to expose the ridiculousness of war, the futility and barbarity of pushing thousands of soldiers into a human meat grinder and expecting a positive outcome for either side. When I heard about his death (on Facebook, obviously – I did quickly go onto the Guardian to check it wasn’t a hoax though) I was surprised and sad. The obituaries were respectful and all spoke of his genius, his amazing comic timing and great acting ability. Lots of genuine and moving tributes were paid, from famous and non-famous humans. The gruesome fascination with his possible suicide was kept to a minimum, a piece of background information to explain how he is no longer alive despite not being that old. Now it’s been confirmed by a coroner that Robin Williams committed suicide it has prompted people to talk about it; his death has at least meant that people who have struggled with depression in the past are talking about their own experiences.
For lesser celebrities the obituaries are not as deferential and while they get more respect in death than they commanded in life, the focus is usually on how and why they died rather than what the gave us while they were alive. Maybe it’s because they didn’t have any obvious talent or skill; after all, selling photos of your tacky wedding to a paper or magazine doesn’t take any special training, nor does lurching from one unsuitable relationship to another or taking large amounts of drugs, so all they really gave us was some light relief and something to gossip about. Measuring someone’s worth in that way omits the fact that they’re a real person, an actual human with feelings and history and relationships with people who aren’t watching them on a screen. While deep down we might think some people are inherently better than others, everyone’s equally human because you can’t really be better at that than someone else, so surely everyone deserves an equal amount of respect in death, no matter what you think they were worth to you in life.