Sigmund Freud theorized that humans have a death drive, a latent desire for self-destruction. In a media ecosystem rife with celebity death pictures, celebrity death bets, Celebrity Rehab, I'd say we have a culture-wide "death drive," too. The reaction to Whitney Houston's death two weeks ago, reported the day before the Grammys, underscored our obsession with such celebrity tragedies. What would be the Oscars' version of that particular fallout?
Whitney was an A-list mega-star whose cultural contributions were numerous, ubiquitous, and emotionally powerful. Her personal death drive—which included addictions to drugs and, by some definitions, an abusive husband—fueled tabloid fascination and reality television. Is there any equivalent in the acting world? The question inspired this thought experiment: Which celebrity, if found dead in a tub after a drug relapse the night before the Oscars, would cause a rubberneck furor on par with Whitney's pre-Grammy's fallout? And who would be the metaphorical Jennifer Hudson singing their song in the inevitable telecast tribute?
Death Drive: A longtime member of AA, Demi's recent drug-induced collapse and stint in rehab was the stuff of tabloid fascination, in part because it was so bizarre. (Hadn't thought about those since The Demise and Rise of Steve-O.) But a large portion of the fascination came from the fact that Demi rarely comes across as messy: To the outside eye, Demi usually seemed stable, even as she lobbed passive-aggressive tweets at Ashton Kutcher during their prolifically messy break-up.
Imaginary Tribute: Chock full of A-listers, due to Demi's famous family and long career. Ghost references might get eerie.
Metaphorical Jennifer Hudson: Rumer Willis. She'd give a speech and hold her sisters' hands.
Verdict: On a scale of 1-5, Demi's imaginary pre-Oscars death scores 3.5 gravy boats on the Whitney Houston scale of death furor.
Death Drive: Powerful. Between drugs, alcohol, violence, and the gleeful indulgence of possible manic episodes, Charlie has been bouncing against the brink of death for year. He's among the few humans on the planet probably capable of fucking themselves to death.
Imaginary Tribute: Guilt-laden. The public not only watched him dissemble and reassemble dozens of times, but actually egged him on and turned his psychotic episodes into laudatory trends on Twitter.
Metaphorical Jennifer Hudson: Emilio Estevez.
Verdict: 4.5 gravy boats.
Death Drive: Between court, prison, rehab, and her obsession with Marilyn Monroe, LiLo is famous almost exclusively for her death drive.
Imaginary Tribute: Painful. The demand for memorialization would be enormous, but there would be nothing to talk about other than "too young, too soon." There would be half-hearted attempts to remember long-forgotten career highs like The Parent Trap and that CD that nobody listened to. Morbid fascination of the most grotesque variety (death photos) would be at a premium.
Metaphorical Jennifer Hudson: Tina Fey, who supported LiLo's career at its highest point, and took a maternal role in that one SNL sketch. Michael Lohan would be the anti-Hudson, sucking up attention and singing that awful song he wrote for "daddy's little girl" last year.
Verdict: 5 gravy boats, in terms of public furor—but note that it'd be a very different type of furor than Whitney's, since LiLo's cultural impact is purely tabloid.
Death Drive: In his early years, Marky Mark was a street-fighting, drug-dealing maniac. His recovery and relative stability are somewhat awe-inspiring, but on a semi-regular basis he remids the world that he could come undone at any moment. Hard to imagine him having a drug-related tub death, but death by curb-stomping after a bar brawl? Feasible.
Imaginary Tribute: Tearful and sprawling. Movie, television, and music industries unite. Celebrity and blue-collar family members stand side by side.
Metaphorical Jennifer Hudson: New Kids on the Block.
Verdict: 1-3 gravy boats, depending on the narrative. The show business response would be huge, but the public response would be smaller, since Wahlberg is rarely a source of public fascination anymore.
Death Drive: Another person who overcame a powerfully self-destructive youth to join the ranks of serious, respected Hollywood. Though Angelina destruction rumors still tear up the tabloids on a regular basis (starvation! suicide! deadly night terrors!) does anyone really believe that a woman capable of simultaneously directing a movie, raising children, giving to charity, maintaining a tranquil home life, and hanging out at the Oval Office is on the verge of collapse?
Imaginary Tribute: Intense. Her acting career has been formidable, but her cultural impact is unparalleled. There would be a tribute to her movies, but even more greater tributes to her humanitarian work and impact on she had on the meaning of celebrity. An undercurrent of articles about Angie's impact on international and interracial adoption would likely ignite a thousand micro-controversies.
Metaphorical Jennifer Hudson: A children's chorus comprised of the Jolie-Pitt brood, of course.
Verdict: 5 gravy boats. Angie's probably the only star whose death would eclipse Whitney's on a cultural scale. She's among the least likely to actually die, though.
Robert Downey Jr.
Death Drive: In the late '90s, Robert Downey Jr. racked up so many harrowing drug-related arrests—one of which included speeding around in a car loaded with heroin, cocaine, and a gun—that during courtroom testimony he likened his life to having "a shotgun in my mouth with my finger on the trigger, and I like the taste of the gun metal." But RDJ's comeback has been as harrowing as his brief defeat: He regularly commands title roles in blockbuster movies, and hasn't even hinted at self-destruction in years.
Imaginary Tribute: Tearful and solemn. His role as a mass media chronicler of death in Natural Born Killers adds a sinister undertone to news coverage of his collapse.
Metaphorical Jennifer Hudson: Jamie Foxx, in a nod to The Soloist.
Verdict: 2.5 gravy boats.
Death Drive: Speaking of Natural Born Killers, remember when Woody Harrelson would get high and dance in the streets, and lead the police on bizarre car chases, and brawl with photographers at bars? It's been so long, I'd almost forgotten about it. Woody has more of a goofball vibe than a self-destructive one, and he's a hyper-moral vegan activist and environmentalist, now. The death drive is relatively weak in this one. The propensity for messiness, however, is strong.
Imaginary Tribute: Equal parts fond remembrance of a fun bro, and awkward advocacy for the causes he cared about.
Metaphorical Jennifer Hudson: Someone from Cheers. Kelsey Grammer, maybe.
Verdict: 0.5 gravy boats.
Death Drive: Self-mutilating at age 11 and eating disordered at 8, Demi Lovato is a perfect storm of high-profile Hollywood pressure and painfully troubled youth. She admits that she still struggles with wellness, and has an uncomfortably powerful desire for public reassurance.
Imaginary Tribute: Incredibly upsetting, heartrending sobbing, excruciating regret. Even contemplating it is giving me a stomachache.
Metaphorical Jennifer Hudson: Selena Gomez, a longtime friend. Due to similarities in their careers and lives, the mere sight of Selena drives everyone to histrionic sobbing.
Verdict: 4 gravy boats, as a stand-in for everything wrong with young Hollywood and tween stardom.
Death Drive: Minimal. Between her weight loss memoir and Weight Watchers advocacy, she's sort of the living embodiment of discipline and healthfulness. The murder of two family members put her in close contact with death and tragedy, but Jennifer carries on with strength and dignity.
Imaginary Tribute: Lots of singing. Much crying. Andre Leon Talley weeps into richly embroidered hanky. Simon Cowell sheds human tears for the first time in his life.
Metaphorical Jennifer Hudson: A choir of two dozen ghost Jennifer Hudsons, singing one of Jennifer Hudson's songs in perfect harmony. (Song options: "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," "I Will Also Always Love You.")
Verdict: 5 gravy boats, assuming ghost choirs are visible on TV. Ghosts definitively proved to exist, world forever changed. Jennifer Hudson really is the greatest.
Images by Jim Cooke