Editorials, Everything Else — December 27, 2011 at 3:00 am

IT’S A DEAD MAN’S PARTY

by

The end of any year marks the time when we, as movie fans, are presented with a variety of lists – lists that rank everything from critics’ “Best Of” choices to final year-end box office results to the hottest breakout stars we should watch the following year, and so on. But the one list that jumps out at me every year is the one that goes by many names, but is probably best known as the In Memoriam list.

It’s a hard list to miss. If you watch Turner Classic Movies, or read Entertainment Weekly, or even catch your late local news on the right night in late December, you will bear witness to some tribute to celebrities who have departed this earth over the past year. The In Memoriam list also finds its way onto the major televised awards shows (like the Oscars), but those don’t begin until January at the earliest. In terms of production, I have always been interested in the In Memoriam lists, and this year is no exception.

Each entry in Entertainment Weekly’s list is something of a celebrity obituary, in two ways. Of course, each eulogy is written about a celebrity, but each is also written by a celebrity that had some personal or professional connection to the deceased. This list includes eight movie-related obits of major names (names you would easily recognize), plus a listing of dozens more names at the end of the feature (sans obit and sans instant name-recognition).

The Turner Classic Movies tribute has the advantage of presenting itself as a video montage set to music. (This is another clear reminder, particularly in contrast to the Entertainment Weekly piece, that print, like the stars it is memorializing, is quite dead). The video is beautifully and respectfully assembled and presented, and contains 66 (!) names of film-related decedents, from major stars to obscure, behind-the-scenes industry people.

But my thoughts on these presentations have been based on their production – what photos, film clips, and words were used to eulogize the departed, and how it was all presented. Other than that, and in spite of my interest in that aspect of it, I find myself wondering why we do this.

Why do we need an annual roll call of dead celebrities?

This isn’t a cynical knock on the dead. I’ve lost loved ones; people who, so many years since their passing, still enter my thoughts almost daily, and with sorrow-tinged fondness. It’s just … when these lists rear their annual heads, I find myself filing the names in one of four categories:

· I knew they had died and read actual obituaries at the time of their passing
· I knew they had died and did nothing because I wasn’t interested in their work
· I didn’t know they had died or I thought they had died years ago
· I had no clue who they were to begin with

This categorization is usually followed by the thought that the last lion of old Hollywood has finally left us, only to find myself saying, “Oh, HE was alive?” the moment the next lion of old Hollywood finally leaves us.

So, why do we need an annual roll call of dead celebrities?

Do these lists offer some sense of closure to fans? I can’t imagine that they do. Average fans are never close enough to celebrities to need traditional closure. The pictures I have of my late grandfather aren’t the same as having him here, but the (motion) pictures I have of the late Elizabeth Taylor are all I’ve ever had, so to pop in a DVD of Butterfield 8 is no different today than it was when she was very much alive.

Maybe there is something in it for the producers of such tributes, but I don’t think so. While your late local news and Entertainment Weekly are providing only highlights (for lack of a better word), outlets like Turner Classic Movies and the Oscars, staffed with people who go to considerable lengths to be as thorough as possible, leave themselves open to criticism if someone is omitted from a given tribute.

Or is it ultimately vanity-by-proxy? Are the annual presentations of the photos and clips and remembrances of the dearly departed simply our way of giving people who lived their lives in the spotlight one last favorable appearance before an audience? Are we so used to glorifying celebrities that it is instinctive for us to give someone a stage even when they can no longer take that stage on their own?

If that’s the case, then the homage we pay might say more about the living than it does the dead.

2 Comments

  • Nice reflections. I think news organizations (and I use that term loosely) do it because it is an easy way to fill space at the end of the year when people are out on holidays. It’s much easier for them to fill the hours with clips of the year’s events, including the memorials, which can be done beforehand instead of having to have someone out reporting on what’s really happening.

    I haven’t really thought about why the awards shows do it, although I admit that it’s usually my least favorite part of the Oscar ceremonies. But I think you’re right about the four categories, and I suspect that one year they felt like there was one person who they really had to give credit too, but then they felt like they couldn’t leave others out and so it grew from there.

    Hopefully by the time we pass they’ll have added bloggers to the Academy, and we can all get our 2 seconds of fame!

  • I agree with you about not realizing so many celebrities are still alive that there deaths come as an unexpected shock.

    While newspapers and its ilk undoubtedly hope for morbid clicks, I’m not surprised the Oscars spend such a significant amount of time on its remembrances– the ceremony itself is not just to bestow a Best of the Best, but as an advertisement unto itself and film. What better way to re-commemorate the films of the past than to bring up their stars, their crews, and their glories?

    It’s sanctimonious, yes, but it gives those people who’ve long been forgotten one last flicker in the public imagination. I don’t mind it.

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