The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Vanity Fair's Heath Ledger cover story: Is it celebrity porn?

July 17, 2009 |  2:39 pm

When you read a 5,000-word magazine piece that begins by saying, "It's nine in the morning and I am in a cab threading its way through a tangle of narrow country lanes ...," you know that you're reading Vanity Fair, the last magazine left standing where writers are encouraged to let us know way too much about themselves (as in one infamous VF piece in which the female journalist quoted the person she was writing about offering a fulsome appreciation of her legs) and far too little about the actual subject of the profile.

Heath-ledger-vanity-fair-cover_a In this case, the VF writer is Peter Biskind, a journalist and author I normally admire (he wrote "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls," a marvelous dissection of 1970s Hollywood). Biskind weighs in with the latest nauseating example of media voyeurism directed at Heath Ledger, who died 18 months ago but still can't rest in peace, his last days being endlessly wormed over by media ghouls like Vanity Fair, which has put him on the cover of the magazine's new issue, betting that he can sell a boatload of copies.

After Biskind finishes his sightseeing ("I glimpse solitary cows grazing in absurdly green pastures") and offers a bizarrely ornate appreciation of Ledger's last film, Terry Gilliam's "Doctor Parnassus," describing it as being "like a pinata exploding with brightly colored gewgaws," he gets to the real matter at hand. He allows Ledger's fans to engage in unseemly fawning flattery, with Gilliam's cinematographer saying the actor was "like a young Richard Burton," before moving on to yet another excruciating excavation of the months leading up to Ledger's untimely death -- from the collapse of his marriage and the custody battle over his child to his drug use, chronic insomnia and all sorts of other gory details.

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?

At the end of the piece, Gilliam says: "We were planning our future with Heath. We were going to make a million films. He was off. Nothing would've stopped him. Except death." As anyone close to Michael Jackson can attest, with Larry King having done something like 23 consecutive shows about the dead pop star, each one more tawdry than the last, apparently even death can't stop the endless parade of morbid media snoops from carving their initials in every available celebrity grave.

  

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