Heath Ledger & the Twilight of the Gods
Heath Ledger & the Twilight of the Gods
According to Freud, the two motivating forces pertaining to the life of the ego are power and pleasure, and the one generally leads to the other: once the ego has enough power to feel secure, it naturally looks for ways to enjoy it. These two drives are nowhere more evident than in Hollywood, where the quest for fame is everything and where “success” is measured solely in terms of recognition and influence. Nor is there any such thing as enough, for unless you are Jack Nicholson or Tom Cruise, there is always further up the ladder to ascend.
In our blind admiration and envy of movies stars, we assume there can be no greater happiness—no greater glory or satisfaction—than the power and pleasures of fame. Such an illusion satisfies a need in both parties: it serves the stars to be worshipped—since their power and influence depends on it—and allows the general public to vicariously enjoy the perks of the rich and famous. Such is the complicity of fantasy between the chosen few and the faceless masses.
The awe with which we regard movie personalities is religious worship in a debased form, and the debasement runs both ways. The public derives power from the act of adoration exactly as primitive man does from worshipping his deities. It is a form of voluntary and mutual bondage, a pact by which the god as much as the worshipper is bound. In the past, however, primitive man—and this holds true for the religious person today—remained largely unconscious of the process of creating gods through the act of worship, and the impersonal forces he bowed down to were superhuman beings beyond mortal ken. However much they may be imbued with supernatural beauty, charisma, talent, and good fortune, at the end of the day movie stars are still mortal, and all-too-human. Abstract, elemental principles like the Sun, Moon and planets could of course handle the process of deification, since they had no egos to be inflated. The worshippers were likewise empowered by serving a force greater than themselves: by succumbing to the divine and relinquishing their autonomy, they could be relieved of their fears, doubts, and limitations as mortals. In return, they received the blessings of the gods.
Naturally, by worshipping material success in the guise of celebrities, as if they were a higher life form, the public is drastically reduced in status and self-respect. And given a power and status previously only granted the forces of nature, is it any wonder if our human “gods” suffer from almost pathological ego inflation? The inevitable result of such inflation is a corresponding enlargement of fears and doubts: since they can’t possibly live up to the process of deification, they are oppressed and tormented by it. All the human neuroses and flaws still pertain to them, and such negative qualities can only be intensified by the strain of having to uphold an illusion of perfection in the public eye. Cary Grant once quipped that even he wanted to be Cary Grant.
Since movie stars—by choice, but not always consciously—become living receptacles for all the public’s hopes, dreams, fantasies and aspirations, there is inevitably a dark side to this process. The split between a star’s public persona and their innermost, private self is a shadowy realm, a twilight world in which movie stars spend most of their lives. They can’t possibly maintain an idealized image, but how can they simply be “themselves” in the face of an endless stream of awe, envy, admiration, resentment, greed, desire, hatred, adoration and terror? Since no one is interested in seeing them as ordinary people, stars must create a shadow-persona by which to relate to a world increasingly made up of shadows.
Movie stars are often said to be insufferable prima donnas, but how could they be anything but insufferable? It’s not that they are only human; it’s that their human side (the neurotic, fucked up side in common with the rest of us) has been magnified to grotesque proportions by the reflecting surface which the world holds up to them and forces them to gaze into. In order to be successful, stars must balance these two extremes: the shimmering public image to be worshipped—the magisterial play of light—and the shadow side which must be hidden from view at all costs.
The tension becomes even more severe if we consider the qualities necessary for a star to achieve—and maintain—worldly success: the overweening ambition, absolute self-assurance and drive, and almost pathological self-absorption (their persona is their “product,” after all), all of which precludes any preoccupation with inner growth or development, which would only interfere with their focus and impede their upward trajectory. Who has time for inner values in Hollywood? So far as they exist at all, they are simply items on the agenda. Success is everything, and relates entirely to status. It is wholly outer-directed, measured in worldly achievements, and divorced of any deeper, personal meaning.
Since movie stars project the best part of themselves into the world, in order to be loved and rewarded for it, they run the risk of being left with nothing for themselves. At which point, they have little choice but to take refuge inside their own shadows simply in order to survive; in the end, such rootlessness is likely to turn them into shadows. The pressures of a life of high fame must be unimaginable, yet most of us are too busy envying the “perks” to consider the price paid to attain them. We are in awe of the Wizard; but draw back the curtain and we will find a shabby old man, frantically pulling levers.
There is nothing more terrifying or despair-inducing than loss of contact with reality; but what could be more unreal than the life of a movie star? The price of becoming the receptacle for the worlds’ dreams and longings is that stars are forced into a strange kind of isolation, estranged not only from everyone around them but from their own selves. To survive such isolation takes either an unusually strong sense of identity or a scary kind of vapidity (i.e., not much of a “self” to lose). One must either be made of the stuff of heroes, or such a shallow soul that there is little chance of drowning in the depths.
Heath Ledger’s sad and untimely death—intentional or not—is all the proof we need that being a movie star is no party. The relentless drive for power leaves little room for pleasure, and it is usually the sensitive souls who—under the relentless pressure to become deified commodities—wind up as sacrifices on the bloody altar of “success” instead. Since Ledger was neither a hero nor a vapid non-entity—neither a Nicholson nor a Cruise—he was dragged under by a wave of success which he lacked the strength—or ruthlessness—to surf. In Hollywood, it’s the nature of the beast to devour and spit out tender souls without mercy or compunction.