How to Mend a Drug Scandal in Three Steps or Less: Heath Ledger and Wallace Reid

heath ledgerThis month’s Vanity Fair

There’s been a bit of fanfare over Peter Biskind’s recent Vanity Fair piece on Heath Ledger — available only in summary form here.   (You know, for those of you interested in celebrity, Vanity Fair costs a ridiculous $12 dollars a year — definitely worth it for the airplane reads alone, let alone glossy photos).

Biskind is a well-known Hollywood ‘historian,’ best known for his book on the ‘silver age of Hollywood,’ Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, and his look back on the rise and fall of the ’90s indie movement, Down and Dirty Pictures. (Both of which are required reading in each and every Tom Schatz class — I think I’ve read or skimmed some sections five times now).   Biskind is also a regular contributor to Vanity Fair, a past editor-in-chief of Premiere, and a general smut-monger.  If you’ve read his books, you understand — he loves stories — the more lurid, the better.  There are a few in his books that genuinely test the limits of good taste.  He doesn’t care whether they’re true or not — he even oftentimes reports a counter-narrative — but loves to put such things in print.  It certainly sells.  One of my advisors (on friendly terms with Biskind) told me that he never does research — has no theoretical or Variety background, never goes to archives — but remembers EVERYTHING that ANYONE has ever told him in an interview.

In other words, he’s perfect for Vanity Fair, which loves to make any story — whether it’s about Bernie Madoff, Sarah Palin, or Heath Ledger — into a melodramatic, thrilling tale of smut, back-stabbing, andhe-said/she-said.    The celebrity profiles are notorious soft, but they’re also responsible for some of the most notorious recent celebrity admissions: Brad Pitt basically admitting that he doesn’t think that marriage is forever (when he was still married to Aniston); Angelina Jolie disclosing that her rendezvous with certain men in hotel rooms for sexual gratification (and nothing more) so that she could concentrate on being a mother to newly-adopted Maddox.

This look to Heath Ledger is a nice combination of the Biskind and VF-profile style.  Usually, this sort of piece would NOT be the cover — VF subjects are usually living, promoting something, and hot.  But when “new information” about a beloved figure is discovered (or manufactured), it sometimes spurs a cover: sometimes with Marilyn, othertimes with a Kennedy, and this most recent cover with Ledger.

A Los Angeles Times columnist has declared the article “celebrity porn,” ridiculing the Biskind/VF style and claiming,

Virtually everything in the piece, even the tales of how Ledger pals Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law volunteered to help Gilliam finish “Parnassus” after Ledger’s death, has been reported elsewhere. After a while, you start to focus less on Biskind’s meddlesome reporting and more on Gilliam, asking yourself: Why is the filmmaker still talking endlessly about Ledger 18 months after his death? Is it just because he lost a friend and collaborator? Or is it because Gilliam knows that a Vanity Fair cover story will help him continue to beat the drums for his movie, which still hasn’t found a U.S. distributor?

Excellent point.  And I’m sure this was, at least in part, strategic on the part of Gilliam — he realized that rousing anticipation for the film would encourage distributors to bid for the film, which, from the sounds of it, promises to be as weird as The Fountain meets Alice in Wonderland.

But the article also serves a less overt or financial function — in providing the details of Ledger’s life, demeanor, and artistry, including his emotions and actions in the months and days leading up to his death, it soothes concerns and provides a form of cultural ‘closure’ to the rupture that was his unexpected death by drug overdose. When a celebrity dies in some ‘scandalous’ way — most commonly drug use, sometimes, as in the case of Keith Carradine, in a more  illicit fashion — it tears a hole, if you will, in the ideological fabric that resassures us of societal solidity and our place within.   Put differently, an unexpected death makes us question what we believed to be true.

For instance, I had no connection to Heath Ledger.  I greatly admired his performance in Brokeback Mountain and knew of his upcoming role as the Joker, but was not what I would term a ‘fan.’  Yet I remember exactly where I was when I heard NPR announce his death — and keenly recall how surprised I was.  I had a vision of Ledger as a doting father and, albeit separated from Michelle Williams, not in danger of eminent death.  I had heard the stories of his ‘absorption’ into the role of the Joker — and Jack Nicholson’s words of advice on maintaining the self, lest it be sucked into the psychosis — but that didn’t mean I thought he was going to die.  His death thus served, for me and millions of others, as a surprise — especially as it was laden with smutty overtones in the early hours of reporting, when it was associated with one of the Olson twins, a masseuse, dozens of pills, nakedness, etc.

What we need, then, to resolve this problem, to restitch this hole, to reassure us that method acting isn’t destructive, that we didn’t pay money to see a money slowly killing himself onscreen, that handsome young talented men don’t succumb to addiction, is an answer: some sort of reckoning.

In the case of Ledger, this has been accomplished in two ways:

1.) The overwhelming awarding of his performance in The Dark Knight.

I’m in no way saying that the performance wasn’t incredible, or didn’t merit recognition.  But awarding it certainly served as an affirmation of Ledger’s talent — that his life, and specifically this peformance, was not for naught.  To NOT award it would be tantamount to declaring his life — and the method of his death — to be a scandal, unworthy, worthy of scorn.

2.) This Vanity Fair article — and others of its ilk.

Here I turn to another drug scandal — one that few remember yet rocked Hollywood when it occurred.  Along with the Fatty Arbuckle scandal, the death of Wallace Reid (due to complications from withdrawl from heroin) is considered one of the greatest scandals of the classic period.  As mentioned, it’s generally forgotten, but as a compelling chapter in Headline Hollywood (Mark Lynn Anderson’s “Shooting Star: Understanding Wallace Reid and His Public) explains, the scandal of Reid’s death was not only a huge scandal — but also a huge victory for the newly organized Hays Office, which successfully parlayed what could have been a story of Hollywood excess and sin into a narrative of a star sacrificing his all for his public and a “national lesson” for the masses.

Briefly, the Hays Office was instituted — at the insistence of the studios — to regulate Hollywood films, which were under fire from all sides for ‘encouraging vice.’  Instead of subjecting themselves to a national regulatory agency, the studios decided to regulate themselves.  The Arbuckle scandal was the final straw in putting the agency in place — not only would it regulate the content of films, but the behavior of the actors as well.  With the Hays Office in place, there would be no more drunken fat men supposedly raping starlettes in hotel rooms!


But then Wallace Reid succumbed to heroic addiction. In the early ’20s, Reid was one of the biggest stars — rivaled only by Pickford and Fairbanks — with a star image as a strapping young man who, at least in his film roles, would exhaust himself for the sake of the greater good (laboring all night to help others out of a mine disaster, for example).  Thus the idea of his addiction rang incredibly out of character — how could such a strong body fall victim to such a drug?

Therefore, before he died — when he was in treatment — his wife, with help from the Hays Office, helped to create a brilliant media manipulation that framed Reid’s addiction as:

a.) the product of an early on-set injury (he became addicted to pain killers after a back inury).  His addiction was thus transformed into a something that occured while he was trying to get back into shape to do his job for the people — he just wanted to please his public!

b.) the fault of a national crime syndicate.   Constructed as such, it reinforced federal calls for a national crack-down on drugs (the first war against drugs — quickly followed by prohibition, which probably should have taught us a lesson about wars on addictive substances).  He was thus a figurehead for larger governmental forces — and a VICTIM!!

c.) using MORPHINE, not heroin.  Heroin was a poor people’s drug — and thus had to be disassociated with film stars, which were already on a slippery slope as members of the nouveau riche. But morphine — that was a high class drug.  It’s like the difference, today, between crack and cocaine.  Or maybe between meth and prescription drugs.

Wallace Reid’s widow even participated in a film against drug use — the equivalent of a PSA for “don’t use drugs,” only not as thoroughly as acknowledged as propaganda.  In the end, Wallace Reid’s star was recuperated — instead of a junkie, he was transformed into a victim, both of his desire to please and devious men of ill-repute.

So how does this relate to Heath Ledger?

While the Biskind article is neither as sincere nor bald-faced manipulative as the discourse surrouding the Reid overdose, there’s a fair amount of image repair going on throughout the piece.

First: Remind us of the immense talent lost

“This final performance, while not the tour de force of weirdness that was the Joker, is good neough — more than good enough — to remind us that Leger’s death has deprived the movies of one of their most accomplished, and promising, talents”

Second: Remind us of his immense commitment to both craft and family

Multiple mentions of his performance in Brokeback Mountain, connection and intense loyalty to Gilliam (for whom he had previous starred in The Brothers Grimm — and who he apparently credits with ‘liberating’ his acting).  What’s more, he LOVED his daughter: “above all else, Ledger was devoted to his young daughter and feared he might lose custory. ‘He was absolutely obsessed about Matilida,’” according to Gilliam.  And he was such a class act that three top actors agreed to step in and finish the film for him.

As for his break-up with Willaims: She courted stardom, he didn’t.  She bought into the Oscar campaigning, he didn’t.  He reportedly had an anxiety attack when his handlers tried to turn him into a teen idol.  He was the anti-star star: he didn’t want the renown pushed upon him.  He was, overall, the victim: of too much talent and too much audience fascination.

Third: Explain and innoculate his addiction.

Ledger was on drugs because: 1.) He had battled pneumonia, 2.) He was overworked (only two weeks between The Dark Knight and Parnassus)  3.) He was in a constant struggle with insomnia — caused by anxiety over needing/wanting to see his daughter after the separation from Williams.  The only release he found was in massage, acting exercises, and, apparently pills.

Importantly, the death was not the result of an OVER-dose, but a negative combination of doses.  He had too many things in his system – he was not hedonistic in his abuse, just needy for release.

Even more importantly, the cause of his anxiety was NOT (or at least entirely linked to) his role as the Joker — instead, it was the confluence of over-work and dedication to craft and family that precipitated his death.  This is an essential move: for if it was the role as the Joker that caused his death, we, as an audience, would in effect be pleasuring in his demise each and every time we viewed, and found pleasure, in his performance as The Joker.  Audience guilt assuaged.

Now, please bare in mind that I’m not saying that Ledger isn’t any of things this article claims of him — or that he didn’t care about his daughter, wasn’t dedicated to his craft, etc.  I’m just looking to way that the discourse concerning those dedications is deployed to mend over the rupture created by his death — and how such narratives can still prove effective, even 18 months after the event.  Star drug abuse, like any other star scandal, demands a reckoning.  Some reckonings — like this one — are simply employed more deftly, and more invisibly, than others.

One Response to “How to Mend a Drug Scandal in Three Steps or Less: Heath Ledger and Wallace Reid”

  1. KW says:

    you mention reid but neglect ledger’s 1990s counterpart: river phoenix. the same hope was placed on him that was post-humously placed on ledger.