My mom’s mom was far from the best person in the world (This is not the grandmother I discussed a couple weeks ago). She held grudges and often spoke ill of others, including family. She was racist. She belittled and insulted my grandfather, only becoming the dutiful, loving wife after he had a massive stroke and lacked the capacity to resist her will. Coulda-beens and shoulda-beens, what-ifs and if-onlys tormented her soul, and she let that bitterness infect the way she interacted with the world.
I knew all this well, and yet when the time came to give my grandmother’s eulogy, I merely skirted these negative qualities, passing it off with a line like, ‘My grandmother in some ways taught me as much or more about how not to live as how to live.” The rest of the speech focused on her sense of humor, her vitality, and what is still – for me – the most relevant and core aspect of her life, the enormous love and support she showed me and the rest of her grandchildren.
I felt somewhat uncomfortable portraying my grandmother in such a positive light, when I knew the story was a much more complicated one. But speaking of the dead, when the full truth may not be all that heart-warming, is a tricky and delicate issue.
For instance, I took offense to many of the obituaries for Senator Jesse Helms, which glibly tried to explain away his strict segregationist philosophies (not to mention a number of his other hateful beliefs) by declaring them typical for other Southern white men of his generation. Unbelievably, some of the stories almost seemed to praise Helms for sticking to his guns while most of his colleagues eventually became more enlightened.
But it’s not just the way we gloss over the flaws of the dead that betrays the truth; we also tend to exaggerate their strengths as well. A recent example: Heath Ledger. I know he was a pretty talented actor, and from what I’ve read, a very decent fellow.
But being sad about troubled young actors and mourning the lost promise isn’t enough for our celebrity-crazed culture; we need to lionize them in the process.
So it’s no surprise that reviews for the new Batman movie and Ledger’s performance in it as the Joker have bordered on the hyperventilatingly positive (The AP called it an ‘epic that will leave you staggering.’ An Arizona paper called it ‘tantamount … to Michaelangelo’s David’).
I saw the movie this past weekend, and it was a decent B- at best, nowhere near as good as the fabulous Batman Begins. The plot was convoluted, the pace dragged and the climax disappointed. I have to wonder if critics in their reviews of the movie as a whole weren’t somehow influenced by Ledger’s premature death.
Now, Ledger did give a great, entertaining performance, about as nuanced and layered as you could expect for what is, in essence, a one-note (i.e. ‘fucked-up crazy’) cartoon clown villain. But is it worthy of the multiple calls for a posthumous Oscar nomination? Too early to say for sure, but my guess is there will probably end up being at least five more impressive supporting actor performances before the year ends. Plus, I’m not sure if there’s ever been an Oscar nomination for an acting role in a comic book movie.
Posthumously giving an award nomination to a guy who probably wouldn’t have received it had he been alive certainly isn’t the worst crime in the world. It’s actually a nice gesture. But it isn’t exactly the truth either.