Celeb Deaths: The Whole World Watches, No One Helps
The entertainment industry is a different planet with its own gravity, oxygen and codes — codes that often fail its stars
Steven Mikulan | December 21, 2009 @ 4:51 PM
Last Updated: December 23, 2009 @ 9:48 AM
Nearly half a century ago, a New York neighborhood was condemned for its heedless indifference to a young woman’s cries as she was being murdered.
Today, Kitty Genovese’s screams might draw people out of their apartments — but only to capture her death on cellphone cameras and post it to YouTube.
Brittany Murphy’s is only the latest name in a march of celebrities to die prematurely and publicly — while the whole world watches but no one helps.
For model Anna Nicole Smith, the end came following years of gluttonous consumption of prescribed sedatives and painkillers.
Michael Jackson’s final curtain fell rather randomly after one of his requests for a powerful anesthetic that is normally only administered in hospitals prior to surgery.
What these three have in common is not merely the lurid transparency of their afflictions and the apparent ease with which their deaths could be predicted.
Even more grotesque is that their weaknesses and weirdness were so highly public — yet, instead of concern, they became the stuff of parody and stand-up monologues.
In death Jackson was eulogized as another Mozart — but right up to the end the living, much derided "Jacko" was treated as the freak of the century.
Smith went a step further by participating in her own degradation through a popular reality show in which she appeared to zone in and out of consciousness while gorging on food.
And enough was known about Murphy’s problems that she even became the butt of a popular drug-addled parody on “Saturday Night Live."
Last November, she was kicked off the Puerto Rican set of “The Caller” and replaced with another actress. On an earlier film, her inability to focus on her character’s lines even forced the producers of “Something Wicked” to rewrite her character in order to compensate for Murphy’s wavering attentiveness.
Yet here she is, dead at 32.
In life, Brittany Murphy may not have been enough of a talent to speak for a generation or even create much of a fan base, but her death is certainly now defining one very dark corner of our culture of spectacle.
The reality TV show boom has created a niche devoted entirely to celebrities who buffoonishly attempt to reach sobriety and, like trained seals fully aware of what’s expected of them, push further and further away from the recovery they need.
Jeff Conaway and Gary Busey have become Monsters of Rehab — semi-coherent personalities making the circuit of reality shows and talk programs who can be counted on to nod off on cue or blurt out the most Byzantine non sequitur when asked a yes or no question.
Host Drew Pinsky may have been sincerely trying to help — but is there anyone who didn’t watch Conaway weekly on “Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew” to see how far he would sink?
He was good for ratings. They even brought him and his wheelchair back for a second season.
Lindsay Lohan’s public dismissals from films. Britney Spears’ disastrous appearance on the MTV Video Music Awards in 2007 and erratic driving habits — before she miraculously pulled herself together.
What is the alibi of those audiences and the industry that panders to them?
For the time being, the official cause of Murphy’s death is cardiac arrest, and much is made of her diagnosis of diabetes, the fact that she had a bad flu in the days before she was found on her bathroom floor, that she was skinny because of an “eating disorder.”
But many are placing their bets on the culprit being drugs — prescription or otherwise. A physical therapist who counted Murphy among his clients told Wrap contributor Frank Swertlow that Murphy had a reputation as a heavy user of cocaine and alcohol.
Swertlow also was told by a doctor that drugs are the first thing that comes to mind when a death involves — as did Murphy’s — excessive vomiting. Inhalation of one’s vomit is a common cause of death among people who mix drugs with alcohol. Remember Jimi Hendrix.
"The only way someone in Hollywood dies at 32 like this is drugs,” the doctor said. (Neither the doctor nor the physical therapist wished to be identified.)
Dr. Charles Sophy is familiar with the celebrity meltdown syndrome. The medical director for the county’s Department of Children and Family Services also is consulting psychiatrist for the VH1 sister shows “Celebrity Rehab” and “Sober House.” While he has had no personal knowledge of Murphy’s problems, he deals every day with medical and psychiatric issues — and the world of celebrity addictions.
Sophy notes that the entertainment industry is a completely different planet with its own gravity, oxygen and codes — codes that often fail its stars.
“Celebrities are a tougher population to corral into treatment for emotional or dependency problems,” he told TheWrap. “They are often busy or they may be in denial. Ultimately it is always the responsibility of an individual to be honest with his or her doctor, but the celebrity also has a team around him or her that often fails them because they are not always on the same page.”
Sophy believes that such failure is often more a collapse of will than morals. Part of an entourage may believe it’s in the celebrity’s best interest to keep them happy by not making waves and questioning their emotional health. It is these individuals who in the long run do more harm than good.
But the entertainment industry as a whole also bears a heavy responsibility, Sophy said.
“This is a pressure-filled world filled with tight schedules, rejection and disappointment,” he said. “These factors can trigger emotions and lead to people not being able to sleep or eat. There are individuals who will bird-dog a celebrity and call in professional help if the celebrity is becoming [self-destructive], but there is no established body for this.”
Sophy believes that even in an age of moral deregulation, a governing board can and should be set up in the entertainment industry to look after its falling stars.
“We should catch them before they get kicked off the set,” Sophy says. “I think when things come out about this kind of behavior there should be a review of these cases, a board to settle better standards, evaluations. We should figure out how to take them off a film set, get them help and bring them back to set, instead of just kicking them off.”
Such a board may sound strangely Old Hollywood, but given the complete professional breakdown of the doctor-patient relationship that allegedly led to the deaths of Anna Nicole Smith and Michael Jackson, this kind of solution may not be as far-fetched – or unpopular – as it sounds.
Death is inevitable, but was Brittany Murphy’s a pre-existing condition?