Dead Idol Worship

Roger Ebert has now been dead for a year.  That means I have spent the past 365 days having to decide for myself whether a particular movie is good or bad, rather than simply logging on to to find out.

I exaggerate, but only slightly.

In point of fact, Ebert likely had a greater and more direct impact in shaping the course of my academic career than any other person I have never actually met.  Indeed, very few within my actual sphere of acquaintance could claim as large of an influence over my decision to go to college to be a writer (if not a critic).

From the beginning of high school onward, I would visit the website of the Chicago Sun-Times every Friday, digesting every word Ebert wrote.  I read his reviews of all the week’s new releases—whether or not I intended to see them—as well as his “Great Movies” series and periodic essays on any subject he pleased.  On multiple occasions, I watched the DVDs of Citizen Kane and Casablanca with his audio commentary track in the background, which gave me as thorough an appreciation for those movies—and movies in general—than any written analysis ever could.

This is all to say that when Ebert died on April 4 of last year, it felt as if a small bit of me had died along with him.  I didn’t know him personally, but he might as well have been a member of my immediate family.  Through his writing, I came to think I knew his mind and his character as well as those of most people I interact with on a regular basis.

As such—and because I continued to read his stuff until the very end—his death left a proverbial hole in my daily routine that could not be filled by anyone else.  Over the past 12 months, I have mourned his passing more forcefully than those of folks I actually, properly knew, whose funerals I actually attended.

Presumably, most will understand what I mean, and have likely felt the same at some point about some personal hero or other.  Yet I nonetheless feel wrong in saying this, as it risks cheapening that very solemn act of grieving.

We Americans are renowned for our celebrity worship, and have been since time immemorial.  Through magazine tabloids, TV shows and the Internet, we follow the lives of famous strangers with an obsession that borders on creepy.  We talk about our favorite celebrities as if we are good friends with them, and when an especially prolific one shuffles off to the great beyond, the entire country has one big nervous breakdown.

We are all well aware of this behavior of ours, but we frown upon it at the same time, as perhaps we should.  Even when our idol worshipping doesn’t spin out of control, it is odd and slightly pathetic to live our lives vicariously through others in this manner.  Why devote so much love and attention to someone who will never give it back?  Someone who, indeed, does not even know you exist?

What I would suggest is for us to differentiate among various types of role models.  Or at least to give it the old college try.

I have said how much I admired Roger Ebert.  As well, I held near-equal esteem for Philip Seymour Hoffman, the film and theater actor who died of a drug overdose on Super Bowl Sunday.  In his relatively brief career, Hoffman managed to star or co-star in practically every movie worth seeing, and when he died I, like many others, felt as if I had been robbed of countless great performances yet to come.

Yet Hoffman’s death has not finally proved as significant to me as Ebert’s, because for all that the former’s work enriched my life, it did not come at the consistent, regularly-scheduled intervals of the latter’s.  Yes, one could depend upon two or three excellent Hoffman performances in a year, but the loss of that is far easier to swallow than the loss of someone with whom one checked in every week, without fail.

In other words, if we are to allow ourselves to grieve for fallen stars with an intensity otherwise accorded close family and friends, let us do so in proper proportion.  All men and women are not created equal in our own eyes, and we should reserve our fullest attention and deepest gratitude for those who truly deserve it.

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