At last, a showbiz drug death where there's no one to blame


This much we know: On Jan. 22, Heath Ledger went to sleep a young movie star and, by virtue of never waking up, emerged a tabloid sensation. He did it the old-fashioned way: death by drugs. It wasn't the conventional heroin or crystal meth or suicide route but rather by inadvertently turning his body into a pharmacological supermarket: sleeping pills, painkillers, anti-anxiety meds. The wrong combination of powerful narcotics proved sufficient to short-circuit a 28-year-old heart.

For more than two weeks now, the TMZs and National Enquirers (and a somewhat more legit tab called People magazine) have fairly salivated over such a prototype Hollywood casualty. We should know the drill by heart: Dude has it all, can't deal with it, stresses to the max by the pressures of burgeoning stardom, keeps upping the ante, pays the ultimate price. An epic calamity. Shakespeare might have scripted it.

What goes unstated in this tragic equation is the twisted yet undeniable social acceptability of Ledger's demise. Because everything was procured with a prescription, he escapes the traditional overdose taint. He didn't inject, he didn't snort, he didn't smoke, he simply swallowed. The end result was pretty much identical, but at least he didn't break any laws. It was all nice and FDA-approved.

My point here is not to pin blame or infer malpractice. I'll leave that to the lawyers. I'm also not traveling the hackneyed road of "We all had a hand in killing Heath Ledger." No, we didn't. The man had free will and took his poison without apparent coercion. Accepting responsibility for one's own actions is a bitch, but it's real.

No, this is about our society's skewed sense of right and wrong. More distorted still is the values system of the showbiz community, a culture that has an innate understanding of how its star-making apparatus can warp impressions and wreak havoc on a young performer's fragile psyche. The ego needs ever-increasing fuel. Insecurities dance with expectations to paint the inner perception that nothing is ever good enough.

Hollywood views pill-popping to make the bad feelings go away as a perfectly sound solution to the tsunami of angst. Reason: It can rationalize there was no way to see the train wreck coming. Bottling everything up and appearing normal on the outside is how you're supposed to handle things so there is no interruption in the publicity/money chain. The exception is if you're an acknowledged "bad boy," because that's a profitable pose in itself.

The difference between Heath Ledger and Britney Spears is that the latter's public meltdown can't so easily be filed away in that portion of the brain that keeps culpability and empathy at arm's length. Ledger's death leaves no blood on anyone's hands, really. With Spears, the slow-mo unraveling is being presented on a world stage as a 20-act play, replete with hyperventilating reviews in the tabs and an utterly ineffectual support network.

Nobody is comfortable with the Spears fiasco because it speaks directly to our cynicism and compassion fatigue. Please don't force us to care! By contrast, Ledger suffered primarily in private while keeping the requisite stiff upper lip like a good fame-seeking missile should. We saw no evil, we heard no evil and he spoke no evil. He was a good soldier in the march off a cliff.

Yet if Ledger traveled all too eagerly into the abyss, it's still wrenchingly senseless. Even if Hollywood isn't the pusher, great talent shouldn't be revocable by prescription.