The deaths this week of comedian-actor Robin Williams and actress Lauren Bacall unleashed an outpouring of grief across the country. The shocking circumstances of Williams’ death – suicide by hanging – sent his fans reeling. Even President Barack Obama released a statement Monday, calling Williams “one of a kind.”
Americans often react this way when a beloved actor or entertainer dies. But are we mourning the wrong people at the wrong time? How much is too much? Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuk, the Red-Blue America columnists, weigh in.
It’s easy to sneer at Americans’ celebrity obsessions. If People magazine, TMZ, or US Weekly disappeared from the Earth, many of us would feel no small measure of satisfaction.
But count me among the millions who posted “RIP Robin Williams” to Facebook and Twitter this week upon learning of the actor-comedian’s death. Silly? Superficial? Possibly. But here’s the thing: Robin Williams wasn’t just a celebrity – not just somebody known to us through the tabloids and gossip columns: He was an artist.
I’m particularly thinking here of a few movies from his late-’80s-early-’90s golden era. I was 16 when “Dead Poets Society” came out – and if ever there was a movie designed to be embraced by theater geeks and aspiring teen writers, this was it: “Dead Poets Society” made us feel understood in a way we thought those passionless adults never could. Robin Williams made me want to read Walt Whitman.
There’s value in that.
Not every movie he made or joke told was equally worthy, admittedly. But the problem with modern celebrity culture is not that Americans jointly express their sadness at the death of somebody like Williams – or Johnny Cash, say, or Whitney Houston – folks who either inspired us or examined the human condition in a provocative way.
No, the problem is that we celebrate too few such folks, make too much space for those artless folks whose claim to fame is . . . being famous. Kim Kardashian has neither inspired me nor made me think, yet I’m subject to entire magazine racks featuring her face (and other body parts) whenever I walk into a grocery store. We’ve bred an entire generation of reality TV stars and magnified their exploits through a 24/7 news cycle that demands to be fed empty calories.
Mock that, if you want. But don’t begrudge me my grief at Williams’ death. His movies inspired me; cynicism can be its own kind of emptiness, if it closes you off from the possibility of such inspiration.
It’s funny how we mourn people we don’t know.
Oh, we think we know them. How could we not? Millions of people watched and laughed with Robin Williams over the years when he performed on stage and screen. The fact that he was particularly candid about his struggles with alcohol and drug abuse made us feel even closer to him – and makes his untimely death that much more difficult to take.
But we do tend to go overboard with these things.
The reaction to Williams’ suicide is nothing compared to the torrent of grief that accompanied the death of Michael Jackson, gone five years this summer. Were Jackson’s last years riven with scandal and embarrassment? People didn’t care. According to Time magazine, some 1.6 million people entered a lottery to win one of 17,500 tickets to Jackson’s public memorial at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
It’s strange. Almost unseemly. An interviewer a few years ago asked Williams about this peculiar phenomenon of Americans’ obsession with celebrities and their demise. Williams was close friends with Christopher Reeve – they were classmates at Julliard in the early ’70s. Reeve, of course, became famous as the star of the Superman films of the late 1970s and ‘80s. He was paralyzed in a horseback jumping accident in 1995 and died in 2004.
Was it hard, the reporter from the London Guardian asked Williams, to see people mourning “Superman” when this was a man Williams knew and loved personally? “It was a weird thing,” Williams said. “It’s a whole different game.”
A public figure never has complete ownership of his private life, especially not in death. Some conservative commentators went out of their way to tie Williams’ garden-variety liberalism to his depression and death. We can safely ignore those ignorant japes.
What’s missing – what’s always missing – is perspective. One celebrity death is a national tragedy. A hundred nameless, faceless suicides in the United States every day are a statistic. And thousands of Christian martyrs dying on the other side of the world are somebody else’s problem.
Ben Boychuk (firstname.lastname@example.org) is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. Joel Mathis (email@example.com) is associate editor for Philadelphia Magazine. Visit them on Facebook: www.facebook.com/benandjoel.