Celebrity death: Assessing the legacy of Tony Scott, Helen Gurley Brown and Phyllis Diller

August 22, 2012

The act The media reaction to the death of the film director and producer Tony Scott has been a bit puzzling. Some of it no doubt is because Scott apparently took his own life. Suicide is literally a tough act to follow - how do you respond to something that's both heartbreakingly definitive and maddeningly hard to define? It makes sense that family and friends would want to figure out how to contain a final act that really is a never-ending story.

By contrast the media feeds on an open-ended story. What better way to keep the 24-hour news cycle going (our modern version of eternity)? So ABC raced ahead with a possible motive, reporting the director had inoperable brain cancer. Some suggested that's becoming a bit of a habit for the network. But CNN, Fox and NBC have all been there too. And who among us (including yours truly) hasn't rushed to share the news of a celebrity death on a social media site? We might rue the results but we can certainly understand the impulse to share early, and often.

So into the abyss of meaning we boldly go, without doubt. It's where we land that's weird. Scott's death has been described as "high-adrenaline" or "dramatic" or one that "suited his dramatic style." This article suggests that the bridge Scott plunged from is significant, because he'd talked about using it in a movie. A Los Angeles Times headline blares "Scott lived like his alpha-male action heroes." But the obit also belies that claim - what kind of action hero has time to sit down and write thank you notes, or act as a mentor?! 

I like action films - a lot.  They're not easy to make well, the way Scott did, over and over again. I don't know much about him. He only did a handful of interviews, like this extended discussion of Unstoppable and this richly detailed profile. In both he comes across less a man of action and more someone who knew his limits but didn't deny his strengths. Scott says, citing his more critically lauded brother, Ridley Scott: "Ridley makes films for posterity. I think my films are more rock 'n' roll. I experiment more." Of course his experiments were conducted within the confines of mainstream, commercial media. Can someone so smitten with runaway trains and Val Kilmer really be an auteur? 

Tony Scott, Helen Gurley Brown, Phyllis Diller. I saw the same hesitant reactions when Helen Gurley Brown and Phyllis Diller died. Sure, each got their share of love. But critics also stumbled over the more troubling parts of their product. Why did Brown, who many claim as a feminist icon, promote content for women that was so "slutty" or trivial? Why'd a comic genius like Diller dress up in fright wigs and party dresses, and traffic in female stereotypes? 

It takes Joan Rivers to remind us that their successes are also acts, saying of Diller "the only tragedy is that she was the last from an era that insisted a woman had to look funny in order to be funny." Maybe we've gotten so comfortable with celebrities and are so convinced that each of us is just a famous person waiting to happen, that we actually mistake the successful among us for their images. But Tony Scott isn't really an action figure. And even hip hop star Rick Ross, whose brand is built on just being himself, tried to cover up his past as a corrections officer

The price of success, the power of pop. There's something about sucess in popular culture that makes us a little nervous. Scott, Brown and Diller made stuff we actually like, and achieved the American dream on a global scale. Does their enormous popularity diminish their merits? Can't they have both? Because that's the nature of pop culture. Not one or the other, but all of the above: sexist and empowering, low and high brow, Phyllis Diller excelling at mother-in-law jokes and classical piano. One doesn't necessarily detract from the other, though it takes a bit of genius to figure out how to sell both. 

We can try to airbrush away the contradictions in our celebrity culture and our pop products, but we can't easily escape them. And why should we? The coroner's report on Tony Scott's death is weeks away, and it may or may not answer questions around his death. As for his legacy? Next time you find yourself saying "I feel the need...the need for speed" or pondering the real nature of a "wingman" remember: a decent, smart and wickedly funny human being had the power to make you do that. And like it or not, ya gotta love it.