I visited the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles a few days ago. It is advertised as “the final resting place to more of Hollywood’s founders and stars than anywhere else on Earth.” The 60-acre cemetery holds the remains of 135 Hollywood luminaries, including Rudolph Valentino, Tyrone Power, Cecil B. DeMille, Douglas Fairbanks, Nelson Eddy, Peter Lorre, Mel Blanc and John Huston.
We all have gods, Martin Luther said, it is just a question of which ones. And in American society, our gods are often celebrities. Religious belief and practice are commonly transferred to the adoration of celebrities. Our celebrity culture builds reliquaries and shrines to celebrities the way Romans built them for divine emperors, ancestors and household gods. We are a de facto polytheistic society. We engage in shamanism. Relics of celebrities, like relics of the dead among ancestor cults in Africa, Asia or the medieval Catholic Church, are coveted as magical talismans.
Hollywood Forever is next to Paramount Studios. The massive white HOLLYWOOD letters on the hillside tower above the tombs and Italian Renaissance-inspired marble buildings that hold rows of crypts. Maps with the locations of stars’ graves, along with a glossy booklet of brief star biographies, are handed out at the gate. Tourists are promised visits with dead stars, who are referred to as “residents.” The cemetery, which has huge marble monuments to the wealthy and the powerful, is divided into sections with names like “Garden of Eternal Love” and “Garden of Legends.” It has two massive marble mausoleums, including the Cathedral Mausoleum, with 6,000 crypts—the largest mausoleum in the world when it was built in the 1930s. Most of the celebrities, however, have simple bronze plaques that seem to indicate a yearning for the anonymity denied to them in life.
The cemetery, established in 1899 and called Hollywood Memorial Park, fell into disrepair and neglect some eight or nine decades after it was opened. By the 1990s, some families, including relatives of the makeup artist Max Factor, paid to have their loved ones removed from the grounds. By April 1996, the property was bankrupt. The cemetery was months away from being condemned. It was bought by Tyler Cassidy and his brother Brent, who renamed it Hollywood Forever Cemetery and began a marketing campaign around its celebrity “residents.” The brothers established the “Forever Network,” in which the noncelebrity departed could, at least in death, be the stars of their own home movies. The cemetery Web site archives the video tributes. “Families, young and old, are starting their LifeStories now, and adding to them as the years pass,” the cemetery’s brochure states. “What this means—having our images, voices, and videos available for future generations—has deep importance, both sociologically and for fully celebrating life.” At funerals these specially produced tributes, which often include highlights from home videos, are shown on screens next to the caskets of the deceased. The cemetery’s business is booming.
It costs a lot to be buried near a celebrity. Hugh Hefner reportedly paid $85,000 to reserve the crypt next to Marilyn Monroe at Los Angeles’ Westwood Village Memorial Park Ceremony. The “prestige service” offered by Hollywood Forever runs $5,400. Jay Boileau, the executive vice president of the cemetery, conceded that getting a crypt near Valentino costs even more, although he said he did not have the price list with him. “We have sold most of them,” he said of the crypts near Valentino. “Visits to his crypt are unique. Every year we hold a memorial service for him on the day he passed away. He was the first true sex symbol. Ten thousand people came to his funeral. He was the first Brad Pitt. He was the first true superstar in film and the greatest screen lover.”
In celebrity culture, the object is to get as close to the celebrity as possible. Those who can touch the celebrity or own a relic of the celebrity hope for a transference of celebrity power. They hope for magic. We seek tangible artifacts of celebrity power from autographs or pictures or objects once owned by the celebrity. Celebrity items from Princess Diana’s old dresses to Swatch watches once owned by Andy Warhol (that originally sold for $40) are auctioned off for thousands of dollars. Pilgrims travel to celebrity shrines. Graceland receives 750,000 visitors a year. Hard Rock Cafe has built its business around this yearning for intimacy with the famous. It ships reliquaries of stars from one restaurant to another the way the medieval church shipped the bones and other remains of saints to its cathedrals. Charlie Chaplin’s corpse, like that of Evita Peron, was stolen and held for ransom. John Wayne’s family, fearing grave robbers, did not mark his grave until 20 years after his death. The headstones of James Dean, Dylan Thomas, Sylvia Plath, Buddy Holly and Jim Morrison have all been uprooted and carted away.
Buses wind their way through the Hollywood Hills so tourists can gawk at the walls that barricade the homes of the famous. The celebrity interview or profile, pioneered on television by Barbara Walters and now a ubiquitous part of the news and entertainment industry, gives us the illusion that we are intimately related to celebrities as well as the characters they portray. In celebrity culture, we seek to validate ourselves through these imaginary relationships with celebrities. Real life, our own life, is viewed next to the lives of celebrities as inadequate and inauthentic. Celebrities are portrayed as idealized forms of ourselves. It is we, in perverse irony, who are never fully actualized in a celebrity culture.
Soldiers and Marines speak of entering combat as if they are entering a movie, although if they try to engage in movie-style heroics they often are killed. The difference between the celebrity-inspired heroics and the reality of war, which takes less than a minute in a firefight to grasp, is jolting. Wounded Marines booed and hissed John Wayne when he visited them in a hospital in World War II. They had uncovered the manipulation and self-delusion of celebrity culture. They understood that mass culture is a form of social control, a way to influence behavior that is self-destructive.
Neal Gabler writes in “Life: the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality” that the power of celebrity culture means we often seek to enact the movies that play inside our heads. We become celebrities, at least privately, to ourselves. Celebrity culture is so ubiquitous that it has established perverse interior personal scripts and modes of speech through which our relationship with the world is often constructed. Gabler argues that celebrity culture is not a convergence between consumer culture and religion but instead is a hostile takeover of religion by celebrity culture. Commodities and celebrity culture alone define what it means to belong to American society, how we recognize our place in society and how we determine our spiritual life. Celebrity culture is about the denial of death. It is about the illusion of immortality. The portal to Valhalla is through the celebrity.
Celebrity worship is dressed up in the language of the Christian right, the frenzy around political messiahs like Barack Obama or the devotional following of Oprah by millions of women. If Jesus and “The Purpose Driven Life” won’t make us a celebrity, then Tony Robbins or reality television will. We are waiting for our cue to walk on stage and be admired and envied.
Personal style has become a compensation for our loss of democratic equality. Our choice of brands becomes our pathetic expression of individuality. Celebrity is the vehicle used by a corporate society to sell us these branded commodities, most of which we do not need. Celebrities humanize commercial commodities. They are the familiar and comforting faces of the corporate state. Advertisers use celebrities to promise us that through the purchase of a product we can attain celebrity power. Wear Nikes and become, in some way, Michael Jordan.
Celebrity culture plunges us into a moral void. The highest achievements in a celebrity culture are wealth, sexual conquest and fame. It does not matter how these are obtained. These values, as Sigmund Freud understood, are illusory. They are hollow. They are hallucinations. They leave us chasing vapors. They encourage a perverted form of narcissism. They urge us toward a life of self-absorption. They tell us that existence is to be centered on the practices and desires of the self rather than the common good.
The most moving memorial in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery is held in a small glass case containing the cremated remains of the actor David White and his son Jonathan White. David White played Larry Tate, the Machiavellian advertising executive, on the television show “Bewitched” and also had a long stage career. He was married to the actress Mary Welch, who died during a second childbirth in 1958. David was left to raise Jonathan. Next to the urns are pictures of the father and young boy. There is one of Jonathan in a graduation gown, the father’s eyes directed upward toward his son’s face. Jonathan died at 33, a victim of the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. His father was devastated. He entered into a long period of mourning and seclusion. He died of a heart attack shortly before the two-year anniversary of his son’s death. The modest memorial is simple and poignant veneration of the powerful bond between a father and a child. It defies the celebrity culture around it. It speaks to other values, to loss, to grief, to mortality and to the awful fragility of life. It is a reminder in a sea of kitsch of the beauty of love.
Celebrity culture encourages us to turn our love inward, to think of ourselves as potential celebrities who possess unique if unacknowledged gifts. It is the culture of narcissism. It is about the hyperinflation of the ordinary. The banal chatter of anyone, no matter how insipid, has in celebrity culture cosmic significance. This chatter fills the airwaves. Reality, however, exposes something very different. And the juxtaposition of the impossible illusions inspired by celebrity culture and our insignificant individual achievements leads to frustration, anger, insecurity and a fear of invalidation. It leads to an accelerated flight toward the celebrity culture, what Chris Rojek in his book “Celebrity” calls “the cult of distraction that valorizes the superficial, the gaudy, the domination of commodity culture.”
This cult of distraction, as Rojek points out, masks the real disintegration of culture. It conceals the meaninglessness and emptiness of our own lives. It deflects the moral questions arising from mounting social injustice, growing inequalities, and costly imperial wars as well as economic and political corruption. Shamanism is not only the currency of celebrity culture; it is the currency of totalitarian culture. And as we sink into an economic and political morass, we are controlled, manipulated and distracted by the celluloid shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave. The fantasy of celebrity culture is not designed simply to entertain. It is designed to keep us from fighting back, even, apparently, in death.
Flickr / AtomicPope
The final resting place of punk guitarist Johnny Ramone at Hollywood Forever Cemetery.