At times like this, as we mourn the loss of so imperious a talent and lament the waste of such rare potential, our minds turn to others cut off in their prime, people whose lives were lost before they had really got going. So I offer a few examples of screen actors who were lost to us before they had reached the heights to which they undoubtedly would have ascended. This is of course not to say that I don’t grieve the loss of many others, that their deaths are not also truly tragic. The sad truth is that far too many to number have died before their time from the worlds of music, film, television and the like. Even Mozart was only 35 when he died.
Heath Ledger (1979-2008) – Heath Ledger first showed that he had masses of charisma in his effortless performance in Ten Things I Hate About You, one of the more successful updates of Shakespeare’s work (The Taming of the Shrew in this case) and then grasped leading man status with both hands for A Knight’s Tale. A patchy film, to be sure, but Ledger was undoubtedly excellent in it. Ledger went on to give us excellent work in Monster’s Ball and Brokeback Mountain before his breath-taking performance in The Dark Knight achieved the unthinkable – putting Jack Nicholson’s performance as The Joker in the shade.
It was an incredibly immersed performance and even now after multiple viewings, his scream of “look at me!” to a terrified captive, or his licking of his lips as he circles Maggie Gyllenhaal lose none of their power. That he should pass away before the film was even released, much less before he could receive the accolades his performance so richly deserved is just one of a multitude of injustices wrought by his premature passing. Such was his talent and screen presence, he would undoubtedly have gone on to become one of his generations most acclaimed actors. A great and tragic loss.
River Phoenix (1970-1993) – Phoenix is another actor lost to us in his 20’s, this time only aged 23. Too young by far. Phoenix already had over 20 titles to his credit, before he succumbed to a speedball outside the Viper Rooms in LA. Stand By Me, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and My Own Private Idaho stick out most noticeably from his CV, but there are forgotten gems like his disarmingly natural and unaffected work in Sneakers and Mosquito Coast to treasure as well.
He was already well on his way to making that tricky transition from child star to adult actor and seemed to have a long and fruitful career ahead of him. In many ways the quality of what he already had under his belt and the obviousness of how much there was still in the locker to come out made it all the more heart-rending that he should pass away so young.
James Dean (1931-1955) – Dean made it to a year older than Phoenix before passing, this time in a car accident. He left behind quite a volume of TV work, but only three credited film roles – Rebel Without A Cause, Giant and East of Eden. Yet in those three roles, he created an indelible impression that would last down the decades since. Look at those films now and it is incredible how well his performances stand up today, in the face of very different (most would say better) acting techniques.
Dean was clearly a man before his time, giving us glimpses in the mid-1950’s of a naturalistic approach to acting that only Brando, Clift and Newman would come close to among his peers. Dwelling too long on his passing generates only frustration that he was denied the opportunity to build up a bigger body of work. It would have been fascinating to see what he could have achieved.
Marilyn Monroe (1926-1962) – Norma Jean Mortenson lived to the comparatively ripe old age of 36, but as with the other people in this list, it is not so much the age that is tragic, as the sense that the people concerned were only just hitting their stride. Dismissed far too often as a ditzy blonde with no real talent beyond her striking looks, Monroe undoubtedly suffered from almost crushing insecurity yet still produced enduring performances that showed massive promise. Forget the Playboy shoot, the dalliances with the Kennedys and the unsuccessful marriages and consider instead Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Some Like It Hot and The Misfits.
Playing to the cliched impression of her, Some Like It Hot actually represents impressive comedic work from Monroe and although she was always going to be left a little in the shadow by Curtis and Lemmon (who wouldn’t be), I defy you to not ache with melancholy at her rendition of “Through With Love”. Her work in The Misfits was no less impressive, easily holding her own when squaring off against Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift. Her candle undoubtedly burned out long before her legend.
John Belushi (1949-1982) – Belushi doesn’t necessarily spring to mind as someone who died young, perhaps because his dishevelled appearance and care-worn face belied his relative youth. But young he was, younger than me in fact, when he passed away. Although his IMDb page lists over a dozen credits, he will be chiefly remembered for Animal House, Saturday Night Live and The Blues Brothers and frankly, rightfully so.
His comic timing, his dead-pan expression, his demolition of a folk guitar on the stairs of his frat house, his dropping of Carrie Fisher in the mud, his wiggling of his eye-brows while spying on scantily-clad sorority girls. He was undoubtedly a force of nature and would I am sure have gone on, like so many of his peers, to show himself as an accomplished and versatile dramatic performer as well. It could have been so very different. What a waste.