My middle son is studying to be an actor and a singer. Last fall, he started school at Indiana University, where the reputation for voice performance and drama is as good as any in the Midwest.
The discipline is rough, and the demands are many. And sometimes, he wonders if it's all worth it, if succeeding will mean becoming part of a culture in which illusion is celebrated and success as a performer can lead to failure as a human being -- or worse, much worse.
Sometimes he thinks he ought to give it up.
Sometimes, I think he's right.
His daughter, Matilda, will not remember the handsome young father who evidently loved her.
In a few years, Heath Ledger, who died today at 28, in a pill-strewn New York apartment, was surrounded by the golden light that surrounded River Phoenix. He had the combination of ridiculously good looks and genuine talent. He did not, evidently, have the strength of character that it takes to survive fame.
If fame a beast that devours whatever it blesses?
It may. Others of Ledger's generation, among them Matt Damon, seem to have found a way -- perhaps education, perhaps self-discipline -- to avoid the excesses that fame offers so freely, among them drugs, parties, the temptation for immortal youth to burn a slender candle at both ends.
Perhaps Britney Spears and Kurt Cobain and Robert Downey, Jr., and so many others had a pesonality disorder that predestined how the combination of moeny and privilege would lay waste to their very being. Perhaps it's the other way around. Perhaps it's only a soul with holes that seeks the excessive compensations and ludcrous rejections of celebrity. As Morgan Freeman has repeatedly said, the constant in the lives of so many actors is early loss.
My son is no Heath Ledger. He is neither so beautiful nor so destined for early stardom. But he is beautiful enough and talented enough that he could make it big. Do I hope he makes it big? I hope he makes it big enough to satisfy his dreams -- not of glamor, but of artistry. I hope he doesn't confuse fame with accomplishment, or money with worth.
He has had a solid upbringing, but torn by the loss of his father to cancer when he was little more than a baby. Don't waste that deprived childhood, a teacher once joked -- quoting a famous director. Become a performer.
Sometimes, our son thinks he might be an awfully good history teacher, who acts in community theater and sings to his children.
Sometimes, I think he should do just that.
Causes Jacquelyn Mitchard Supports
National MS Society, Women Against MS, National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, One Writer's Place