Dying Young: The Smartest Hollywood Career Move?


No one should ever have to die young, but Death is an impartial reaper, culling from all ranks of the human herd, including the rich, famous, and talented.

The premature passings of cinematic icons Rudolph Valentino, James Dean, and Marilyn Monroe were certainly great tragedies for the individuals and their fans, but it’s interesting to speculate whether these three would have remained “legends” had they received their entire allotted “threescore and ten” on this earth.

Take, for example, the case of Rudolph Valentino, who died of peritonitis at the age of 31 in 1926. If Valentino was meant to die young, the Fates scheduled the perfect time for it to happen. The Italian-born Valentino had a pronounced accent that would have undoubtedly halted his career within the next several months when “talkies” hit the scene.

Nearly thirty years later, James Dean was killed in a car crash shortly after having completed his third and final film, Giant.

I remember reading a quote describing the legacies of James Dean and Marlon Brando shortly after Brando’s death in 2004. The commenter compared the two Young Turks who rose to fame in the 1950s by saying, “The best thing that ever happened to James Dean’s career was that he died young, and the worst thing for Marlon Brando’s was that he didn’t.”

This may be unduly harsh on Brando’s account, but is it true when speculating about Dean? One thing that Dean had going for him (moreso than either Valentino or Monroe) was talent. Martin Sheen, who I respect deeply as both a man and an actor, is a huge fan of his work. That’s quite an endorsement. But Dean was reportedly not the easiest guy to work with, and had talked about quitting acting shortly before his death to move to the director’s chair. It’s interesting to wonder if his career would have modeled Brando’s or have been more akin to another 1950s contemporary, Paul Newman. Whereas, Brando shot out of the gate, just like Dean, many of his later roles lacked consistency, and he was left with an obituary that made more mention of his obesity and family problems than his body of work. Newman on the other hand had a solid career from start to finish.

I may make some enemies here, but I personally believe that history would have been much less kind to Marilyn Monroe’s legacy had she lived a full lifetime. Marilyn was always more of a movie star than actress, and by the time of her death in 1962, she had worn out her welcome in Hollywood with her diva antics (think Lindsay Lohan). As I wrote yesterday, her personal problems plagued The Misfits in 1961, her last film to be released, and her final film, Something’s Got To Give, was never completed because she was banished from the set halfway through the production. Marilyn was a pretty face, but lots of former screen hotties from that era have been erased out of the public’s memory. (Who out there remembers Diana Dors? Anyone?)

A career label of “has been” is not as sustainable as “what might have been.” While it would definitely suck to have your career in Hollywood snuffed out by an early death, it might just be what the doctor ordered for your legacy.

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About deadwrite

Freelance writer, film historian, taphophile View all posts by deadwrite

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