I want to draw my personal line at Brittany Murphy.
It’s a death without worthy pathos. It does not even invite much morbid curiosity. A most minor starlet, already past her prime, dies in an utterly conventional way—methodical, long-term, self-abuse. And yet, nearly as a Christmas miracle, she’s reborn as Joan of Arc, or Michael Jackson.
The point, obviously, is that celebrity death is a really big draw. Celebrity death is bigger even than celebrity adultery, except for Tiger Woods. But were Tiger Woods to die, his death would now be bigger than his adultery.
The celebrity press, having done incredibly big numbers with big deaths, now needs more celebrities to die. And these cannot be old celebrities. Brittany Murphy may have been past her professional ingénue prime, but she’s still in her Hollywood-dying prime. The only problem, which the celebrity press is hoping can be overlooked, is that almost nobody knows who she is. Even the descriptions of her career progress are embarrassingly vague. Exactly which character in Clueless
It’s an iffy and existential strategy for the celebrity media. Can Brittany Murphy achieve in death the fascination that she failed mightily to attract in her working life?
There’s major desperation to find a story here, which seems now to be settling, none too successfully, around a husband who is less famous than the other men with whom, in her prime, she was linked, and around eating disorders. There’s great hope, of course, that gruesomeness, perversity, or any as yet untold cautionary tales might emerge.
If the celebrity press had better writers, it could perhaps squeeze out a story of failed dreams and the cruel ravages of a heartless town. But, in the modern celebrity press, celebrities carry the writers, rather than the writers making the celebrities.
So I think the celebrity press could be in trouble with Brittany Murphy.
I think the fulsomeness of the coverage of her demise is going to make people ask the one question the celebrity press cannot afford its audience to ask: Do I care?
That is then the real existential quandary. Not whether Brittany Murphy wasted her life, but whether we are wasting our time reading about her wasted life.
Celebrity death, and our emotional involvement in it, requires a certain suspension of disbelief. We really can’t question if they’re worth it. If we start to weigh the relative merits of their lives and our interest, who knows where it can lead?
That might be the good news then about poor Brittany’s death, that many people start to ask just exactly for which celebrity the bell tolls, and decide that for most they just don’t care.
More of Newser founder Michael Wolff's articles and commentary can be found at VanityFair.com, where he writes a regular column. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow him on Twitter: www.twitter.com/NewserColumns.