Live Fast, Die Young...If You Know What's Good For You
A casual conversation about movies today drifted into a morbid topic: dead movie stars. The obvious consensus was that, after a certain age, many stars are better off dead than alive. James Dean's enduring status as a sex symbol would almost certainly lose some of its luster if he'd bloated and widened in middle-age and started selling home grilling appliances and, to some degree, Marlon Brando's legacy was negatively impacted by said same process of aging and making crummy souldeath movies (Though I heart his moo-moo-laden performance in The Island of Dr. Moreau).
But those are the obvious examples. Who, I wondered, should be added to the ledgers of people whose legacies have greatly suffered as a result of their superb health? The answer:
Understand that I mean Chevy Chase no ill will. I don't wish him dead, and I'm not instructing anyone to kill him. But consider: in 1985, Chase appeared in two wildly popular films: Fletch and National Lampoon's European Vacation. In the decade prior, he'd been the breakout star on the hottest television of the decade, then crossed over to the big screen with a level of success unprecedented for TV stars. He made the largely forgotten but totally charming Foul Play with Goldie Hawn, then connected with two of the defining comedies of the 1980s: the original Vacation and Caddyshack. Thanks to all of those movies, he will never be forgotten. I'm pretty sure they named that town in Maryland after him at some point around that time as well.
But then take a look at what happened in the twenty years since. Just look at the list of titles! They range from the sort-of tolerable (Memoirs of the Invisible Man) to the merely unfunny (Funny Farm) to the dangerously unfunny (Cops and Robbersons) to the carcinogenically unfunny (Nothing But Trouble). Though he had a funny cameo in 2002's Orange County, he spends most of his time these days doing cartoon voices, recent credits include Doogal and get ready for it The Karate Dog.
I think being in The Karate Dog pretty much makes my argument for me. But just as we can compare Dean and Brando, Chase has his own ready-made counterpoint: his Saturday Night Live co-star, John Belushi. Belushi's death at such a young age was devastating, but it preserved his legacy just when he began to come down from the peak of five years on SNL followed by the one-two punch of Animal House and The Blues Brothers. Most people today don't even know that he made two widely reviled movies just before his death (Continental Divide and Neighbors). By dying so young, Belushi was eternally preserved as Bluto, the great cheshire cat of college.
Certainly anytime someone dies young, it is a tragedy. That tragedy is magnified when the person who dies is as talented as a Belushi or a Dean. But, morbid as it is, that tragedy preserves them in an odd way, sealing their youth in our collective minds for all eternity while others age and fade. A life is a terrible thing to waste, but wasting a career is nearly as bad.