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Posted at 10:43 AM ET, 03/10/2008

Comment Box: (Not) Heath Ledger's Final Thoughts

By Liz Kelly

(AP)

Celebrity news reportage walks a narrow path of legitimacy. Veer a little to one side and one risks turning into just another venue for celeb PR. Overcorrect and one is liable to tumble down the slippery slope of scandal-mongering . One need look no further back than last week's Celebritology Live discussion for a flare up of the old Britney ambulance pic debate.

But between flakking and fabrication, Esquire has found a new fuel to feed the cult of celebrity: fiction. In its April issue, the magazine published an item titled "The Last Days of Heath Ledger." It reads like a journal of the actor's final hours before his death from a combination of prescription medications and includes the mundane (what he ate) and the speculative (his musings on fame). It is at once boring and compelling. It is also entirely fiction. Or, as Esquire terms it: "reported fiction."

The piece, written in a clipped volley of pessimism by writer Lisa Taddeo, paints Ledger as the kind of guy who would describe London club goers as "janky-toothed, flat-faced Brit chicks at the bar," sneer at Jack Nicholson and buy t-shirts for his toddler daughter Matilda only to score points with ex Michelle Williams. All of which amounts to an overt, yet lame, attempt to explode the going perception of Ledger as a nice, gentle -- if misguided -- guy.

Taddeo's imaginings are also attempt to define Ledger's death as purely accidental. "I'm not some f***ed-up star who couldn't deal. I could deal; I just couldn't sleep," writes Taddeo as Ledger. I get it. She's demystifying a celebrity, taking the wind out of the sails of our martyr-star fascination. By painting Ledger as tediously human and as prone to human faults as the rest of us, Taddeo makes her point that his death was a blip, not a bellwether.

"I purposely didn't want it to be seen as exploitative in any way," said Esquire editor David Granger to the New York Times, explaining why the item didn't merit cover treatment.

The piece is short and forgettable -- thankfully so, considering that one day Matilda Rose will likely be interested in understanding her lost father. But what impact does even a fictionalized account have on our impression of the very real subject? Unlike a tale like "Citizen Kane" (inspired by the real life of Randolph Hearst), pieces like this run the risk of blurring the lines of reality.

"Don't investigate my last few days, because these could be your last few days," writes Taddeo as Ledger. "Play your own part."

I'm left wondering why Taddeo, and Esquire, didn't follow this good advice.

Many thanks to reader PSR for inspiring today's piece.

By Liz Kelly  | March 10, 2008; 10:43 AM ET
Categories:  Celebrities, Comment Box  
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Comments

If Esquire editor David Granger "purposely didn't want it to be seen as exploitative in any way," the Ledger article would have been deleted with the rest of the spam that arrived in his email that day.

(And Dave, if you're reading this: I expect to credited when you publish your "Women We Love/David Granger's Spam Filter Issue." Still can't promise I'll read it, though.)

Posted by: byoolin | March 10, 2008 10:20 AM | Report abuse

That "reported fiction" just sounds so creepy. If Esquire didn't want to exploit, they shouldn't have run the article.

Posted by: jlr | March 10, 2008 10:31 AM | Report abuse

Agree wholeheartedly with byoolin. If - and that's a HUGE if - I wanted to read about Heath's last days, I sure as hell don't want to read some fictionalized "first-person" version. What B.S.

Posted by: Juicy | March 10, 2008 10:31 AM | Report abuse

That's so dumb. I was torn between "boring" and "exploitative." Can it be both at once?

Posted by: h3 | March 10, 2008 10:46 AM | Report abuse

"I purposely didn't want it to be seen as exploitative in any way." Oh really David, do you have a bridge in Brooklyn you want to sell me as well?

Even if this Taddeo person knew Ledger (and I doubt that). A fictionalized first person article still doesn't have any merit and is a bit sick.

Posted by: petal | March 10, 2008 11:56 AM | Report abuse

It would be boring if it weren't so exploitative. It really staggers the imagination that a magazine with the reputation of Esquire feels the need to stoop to such low 'journalistic' expectations.
You can almost hear the 'ka-ching' of tiny cash registers in the publishers/editors brains. I imagine their self talk running along the lines of "Even if people don't like the idea of the Ledger faux-diary, they'll be talking about it! We'll be relevant again!"

Posted by: methinks | March 10, 2008 12:00 PM | Report abuse

This is something I'd expect from The Enquirer or another tabloid, not Esquire.

Posted by: Sick @ home | March 10, 2008 12:22 PM | Report abuse

Esquire: BAD, BAD IDEA.

Posted by: Kirsten | March 10, 2008 12:22 PM | Report abuse

It's truly sad to see how low Esquire has fallen. Many years ago (when I was in journalism school), Esquire was widely considered one of the best magazines around. They had great writers, doing really compelling pieces, and the magazine was almost considered required reading for 20- and 30-somethings in the know.

Then came a scandal in which it was revealed that Esquire had allowed major advertisers to influence the magazine's coverage, in stories that might have proved harmful to the image of the advertisers. And another scandal, in which Esquire was accused of taking money from corporations, for printing favorable articles about their products and services.

Esquire's circulation numbers dropped through the floor, many longtime advertisers bailed on the magazine, and many longtime readers (like myself) walked away and never looked back. So I don't find it the least bit surprising that Esquire has now turned to this form of salacious, tainted and disreputable reportage.

Posted by: niceFLguy | March 10, 2008 12:34 PM | Report abuse

It isn't the first time Esquire's done this. A recent story, Violence of the Lambs, included a significant chunk of fiction melded with actual fact (the main "expert" the author interviewed was, in fact, a figment of the author's imagination - a device that was completely admitted to in the last paragraph or so of a lengthy piece). Esquire isn't interested in being U.S. News & World Report, and they consider it a literary innovation. My problem is with dressing it up a journalism, which results in a loss of all credibility and integrity.

It also seems dangerous, considering that a great number of people don't understand the distinction between fiction and non-fiction. As an art historian, I continue to be told by Dan Brown devotees that I'm dead wrong about the Last Supper. This can only create a flock of readers who are convinced they know the "real story" behind Ledger's death.

Posted by: musicgeek | March 10, 2008 12:40 PM | Report abuse

"Don't investigate my last few days, because these could be your last few days... Play your own part."

This IS good advice. If it is acknowledged as such, why don't Celebritologists follow it? You know what I mean? The point of the advice, I think, is that blogging and reporting and salivating over and commenting on other people's lives (right down to how they cut their hair or where they're on vacation) is... let's face it... kind-of a waste, no? I mean, if one were doing that with non-celebrities it would be downright sad, right? There's a lot of living to do, and should the short time be spent on this kind of stuff?

Posted by: The Better Question | March 10, 2008 12:51 PM | Report abuse

This IS good advice. If it is acknowledged as such, why don't Celebritologists follow it? You know what I mean? The point of the advice, I think, is that blogging and reporting and salivating over and commenting on other people's lives (right down to how they cut their hair or where they're on vacation) is... let's face it... kind-of a waste, no? I mean, if one were doing that with non-celebrities it would be downright sad, right? There's a lot of living to do, and should the short time be spent on this kind of stuff?


Posted by: The Better Question | March 10, 2008 12:51 PM

As opposed to reading this? If this is such a waste of time, then why are you (1) reading it and (2) commenting on it?

Posted by: Anonymous | March 10, 2008 1:02 PM | Report abuse

"I mean, if one were doing that with non-celebrities it would be downright sad, right? "

Apparently, The Better Question has never read Liz Kelly's *other* blog, "Peonology," devoted to the lives of everyone who posts here.

Posted by: byoolin | March 10, 2008 1:09 PM | Report abuse

Who's going to do the biopic? Oliver Stone?

Posted by: Anonymous | March 10, 2008 1:10 PM | Report abuse

If all we did all day was sit here and comment on celeb's lives that would be one thing. But IF you were a regular reader of this blog, you would know that many of us have many meaningful things going on in our lives. This blog is out bit of harmless escapism in order to deal with all the other stuff in our lives.

As the Ledger article, if Esquire wants to be a literary magazine, fine. But, don't claim to be a journalistic product when it is not. I have hated this mixing of fact and fiction since the Reagan biography.

Posted by: ep | March 10, 2008 1:14 PM | Report abuse

Writing, like visual art, no longer seems to be about talent. It's not what's good, it's all about what will sell.

Posted by: possum | March 10, 2008 2:10 PM | Report abuse

Omg, I want to be on Peonology! Wait...I guess I already am. Liz, you want some of my vacation pictures? I took a ton!

Posted by: h3 | March 10, 2008 2:58 PM | Report abuse

Peonology! Hilarious.

I thought I saw someone hiding with a camera when I was getting my coffee today...

Posted by: Sigh | March 10, 2008 3:27 PM | Report abuse

Meh. Some fanfic writer got ambitious. This should have gotten left on the internet with the million other "In the voice of..." stories.

Posted by: 23112 | March 10, 2008 3:40 PM | Report abuse

Bulletin: We're changing the name of "Peonology" to "JohnandJaneDoe-ology" because of the unexpected cross-pollination from urine enthusiasts.

Posted by: Liz Kelly | March 10, 2008 6:07 PM | Report abuse

The mere existence of the phrase "urine enthusiasts" shows that it's a sick world we live in.

And we peons get it right between the eyes.

Posted by: byoolin | March 10, 2008 8:53 PM | Report abuse

it's a sick world in which we live in

..if you're sir paul.

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