Suicide and the Hollywood Legacy

In 1932, welsh-born Peg Entwistle, a 24 year old aspiring actress, told her uncle she was going to visit friends, instead she took off up the Hollywood hills, climbed the letter “H” of the now famous structure and leapt to her death.

Why she picked that particular letter no one knows, but it’s easy enough to understand the significance of the spot that she chose to end her life.  In true Hollywood fashion however, it is reported that the day following her demise, around the time she lay cold, contorted and rigid in the dirt, a letter would arrive at her home and with it an offer of a  part in a play about a young girl who commits suicide. The story itself would become legend; an example of cruel irony that Hollywood simply can’t get enough of.  But the girl who jumped that day never really mattered anyway and would be all but forgotten until only the event itself remained.

The bright lights that once lit up the “HOLLYWOODLAND” sign are long gone, but the lure of the American Dream, like a siren on the rocks, is as enchanting as ever.

However, despite its frequent cruelties, Hollywood is still a land of wonderment; a place where fantasy becomes reality and at the right time of day the very place where the American Dream can be seen riding the breeze up and down Sunset Boulevard for all to see.  Money, fame and glory await those with the grit and grace of los ángeles.

Trawling the internet and library catalogue for stories about the tragic relationship between the film industry and the lives of Hollywood glitterati whose candles burned so unstably and violently that the brutality and harshness of the business in which they were entwined forced them to take their own lives, reveals very little cases for what is needed.  What actually happens in Tinsletown and the stories that can be uncovered are less sexy, less self-indulgent and sell fewer books.  Instances of intentional self-murder among the really big names are rare and even those that come closest to fitting the bill are so cluttered and shrouded in mystery and conspiracy-speak the facts get lost like celluloid swept from the cutting room floor.

Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, George Reeves even Heath Ledger spring to mind when we think of Hollywood tragedy spattered with shards of suicidal intent.  The most famous example, Marilyn Monroe, was ravaged and half-crazy from years of prescription drug abuse at the time of her death, aged 36.  The circumstances surrounding her death have haunted her memory ever since, with speculation ranging from accidental murder administered through the simple idiocy of her physician to a super-charged enema carried out by deathly minions at the behest of either JFK and his little brother or the Mafia.

Wizard of Oz star Judy Garland, another prolific prescription drug user, officially died of “an incautious self-overdosage” of barbiturates, though many maintain it was intentional.  George Reeves, depicted on screen by Ben Affleck in the 2006 docudrama Hollywoodland, died from a self-inflicted gunshot to the head.  However, his mother, believing he was murdered, rallied against the coroner’s findings until her own death.

The same year Reeves met the bullet, a 51 year old Gwili Andre sat on the floor of her bedroom, surrounded herself in her own publicity shots –symbols of her failed attempts at ‘making it’— doused herself in petrol and set herself on fire.  This form of suicide, called self-immolation, is occasionally employed by indigenous people around the word as a harrowing and stark symbol of protest at the great injustices borne out of governmental neo-liberal practices.  What, if anything, was Andre protesting?

Justine Pierce, 25 year old actor who stared in Larry Clark’s 1995 cult classic Kids hung himself in 2000 amid rumours of drug abuse and distaste for Hollywood. In 2003, the death of small time actor Jonathan Brandis, went largely unnoticed by the mainstream news.  Brandis died in hospital after hanging himself in his Los Angeles home.  Though no suicide note was found, friends claim he was feeling depressed over the decline in his career at the time of his death.   British actress Fritha Goodey stabbed herself in the chest in 2004, Michael Gilden hung himself in 2006 .  There are others, but I wont bore you with the details.

These curious cases resulted in few openly critical questions of Hollywood and its’ practices, and perhaps rightly so.  There is no evidence that says that those in the acting profession are more prone to suicide because of dissatisfaction with direction of their careers than say, insurance salesmen or Macdonald’s employees. Unfulfilled dreams and misplaced years are equally tragic regardless of chosen industry.

Of course there is a different sort of suicide –suicide by slow capitulation, which if are to be included, rack up an impressively high body count; these tales encompass a whole gamut of self-tormentors, self-loathers, misfits, tortured souls and sexual deviants and their slow descent into such crazy excesses of alcohol, drugs and sexual freakishness that Dionysus himself would be driving them to rehab.

The reality is that those who suffer most are on the fringes of a club so exclusive that even the lucky few who are welcomed to the warm bosom of the beast often end up in its belly.  The bit-parters and the outcasts are usually the ones with their hands closest to the gun and are remembered only as manifestations of the failings of an industry that takes no prisoners and offers no hope to those who are left out in the cold.

But the end for the likes of Oliver Reed, John Belushi, River Pheonix, Don Simpson, Marlon Brando, just like peg Entwistle and countless others, happened because they took the Myth too seriously, and the hardest thing is to try and make sense of it all, the chaos and the disappointment, in the simplest terms they were unable to separate the fantasy from the reality and found themselves caught in the slip-stream of the unstoppable force as it met that immovable object.

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About craig shaw
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2 Responses to Suicide and the Hollywood Legacy

  1. Henry Zecher says:

    Craig,
    You have a great photo of the Hollywoodland sign at night. I am about to place on my own website an interview I conducted with the HOllywood Sign Girl website of James Zeruk, and would like to use this photo of the sign under the moon. May I?
    Thank you.
    Henry Zecher

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