Screening Room

Screening Room

Darkness and Light: Evoking the Flip Sides of the Hollywood Dream Machine

By Frank Pittman

September/October 2008

Sometimes, our most immediate reactions to a film may come not from what's flickering past us on the screen, but from what we know about the actors' off-screen lives. I still can't see East of Eden or Rebel without a Cause without thinking about the death of James Dean and the fragility of adolescence. I can never see Marilyn Monroe sashay across the screen without hearing, somewhere in my head, her breathy, seductive version of "Happy Birthday, Mr. President." It's part of the uniquely dreamlike power of the Hollywood movie experience that the people on the screen can become so much a part of our world of intimate associations—like family.

This past January, Heath Ledger, the young Australian heartthrob who'd just finished portraying the Joker in The Dark Knight, died in bed from an overdose of tranquilizers, pain pills, and sleeping pills. Unless you've been boycotting the ubiquitous sources of celebrity gossip since then, you know that he'd had a child with his Brokeback Mountain costar Michelle Williams, then called off their wedding, only to die alone.

I hadn't been a Heath Ledger fan particularly. In spite of the remarkable intensity of his performance, his range seemed narrow—a James Dean without the omnisexual beauty and charisma. He seemed always to be reaching out for a father or a girlfriend or just about anyone to rescue him. So to better understand the sense of collective mourning that accompanied his sudden…

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