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Gone But Not Forgotten...fallen stars

Posted by on Jan. 26, 2008 at 7:33 PM
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Gone but Not Forgotten

Heath Ledger is the latest in a sad lineage of great actors who left us too soon. We honor other lost talents who live on in their movies

By Kim Morgan
Special to MSN Movies

For anyone who loves movies, the very idea of one of our favorite talents dying is hard to take. After losing troubled Brad Renfro, 25, on Jan. 15, this week another tragic blow struck the film industry with the untimely death of the magnificently talented and sensitive risk-taker Heath Ledger, 28. In the prime of his career, with everything seemingly going for him and numerous future performances just waiting to grace the big screen, the loss of Ledger is shattering and still shocking.

See also: Tribute to Heath Ledger

Photos: 10 actors, like Ledger, who died in their 20s

Rather than wallow in the senselessness of it all, we urge you to honor Ledger -- honor him with respect and joy -- joy that in his short life he gave us some sublime performances, a few of which will become legendary. His sudden death prompted us to think of other performers who left us too soon -- 11 talents we still mourn, revere and celebrate. Thank goodness we will always have their movies to remind us of their great talent.

River Phoenix
, 23

Many remember seeing River Phoenix for the first time as the sensitive young lad in Rob Reiner's touching "Stand by Me." As Phoenix was entering his teens, we could tell there was something different about him, something more substantial and soulful. Blessed with blond good looks and a shy smile, Phoenix was also tremendously gifted, a natural talent who excelled in movies such as "The Mosquito Coast," "Running on Empty" (for which he received an Oscar nomination), "Dogfight" and "My Own Private Idaho" (his absolutely brilliant portrayal of a hustler suffering from narcolepsy lives on). Frequently compared with James Dean for his powerful mixture of edginess and vulnerability, Phoenix tragically realized Dean's "live fast, die young" image when on Halloween 1993 he died outside Los Angeles' famed Viper Room nightclub at the tender age of 23. A drug overdose brought on heart failure. It was a shocking blow to fans and the film industry, and we continue to feel the loss of this unique young man who had so much more to offer.

John Belushi
, 33

This anarchic "Saturday Night Live" comic possessed an almost alarming talent that was exciting -- partially because you weren't sure what he would do next. Whether doing a spot-on and musically impressive Joe Cocker imitation or playing an honorable samurai performing various duties such as working in a delicatessen, Belushi was an explosive talent who naturally made a memorable transition to the big screen.

He was perfect as the food-fighting Bluto in "Animal House" and as the cool, lovable cat in "The Blues Brothers," but the comic actor yearned to branch out into different projects, such as his romantic turn in writer Lawrence Kasdan's "Continental Divide." Sadly, the troubled force-of-nature was not able to fully realize his on-screen potential because of his cocaine and heroin overdose at the infamous Chateau Marmont hotel in West Hollywood. Slated to present the first Visual Effects Award at the 1982 Academy Awards with good friend Dan Aykroyd, Belushi didn't live to attend the ceremony. A saddened Aykroyd presented the award without him, telling the audience, "My partner would have loved to have been here to present this award, given that he was something of a visual effect himself."

Bruce Lee, 32, and Brandon Lee, 28

Martial artist extraordinaire Bruce Lee also majored in philosophy at the University of Washington, which isn't so surprising because he was a reflective, thoughtful man. A terrific looking and sensitive soul who could also deliver a swift and beautiful roundhouse kick to an opponent's face, Lee moved from TV star on "The Green Hornet" to martial arts star, chiefly for the great "Enter the Dragon" (1973), and his directorial debut , 1972's "Return of the Dragon," his best picture. It was also his final complete film. While working on "Game of Death" in 1973, Lee collapsed under still-mysterious circumstances (he ultimately died from cerebral edema). The controversy of his death lives on, with rumors ranging from a faked death to murder. His talented son Brandon met a similar fate while making his first big film, "The Crow." Accidentally killed by a prop gun on the set, Brandon died at the age of 28.

Marilyn Monroe
, 36

One of cinema's most famous deaths, a tragedy that would come to represent the ugly downside of a fractured American Dream, Marilyn Monroe forever remains our tragic goddess. However, she was so much more than a legend on a coffee mug; she was a living, breathing star, a troubled woman we still wish we could have rescued. Watch her perform "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" with effortless charisma and cleverness; observe her potent sadness in "The Misfits"; revel in her va-va-voom bad girl of "Niagara"; and drink in striking vulnerability and sweetness in "Bus Stop." After being fired from George Cukor's "Something's Got to Give" (where she looked stunning), Marilyn died of a drug overdose in 1962. Though she was no doubt worried about aging in an unforgiving business and had suffered many personal setbacks, our cherished bombshell could have evolved further into an even more interesting actress.

James Dean
, 24

Three movies. Only three movies. And yet, James Dean, one of cinema's first method actors (after Montgomery Clift, who also left us too soon, and Marlon Brando) made such an indelible, magnetic impression, he almost feels prolific. The iconic, intense young actor's few roles are so legendary, so uniquely textured and so entirely his (you can always spot a new actor attempting a James Dean performance) that one never tires of them. Working with three great filmmakers, Elia Kazan in "East of Eden," Nicholas Ray in "Rebel Without a Cause," and George Stevens in "Giant," each performance was brilliant, making his 1955 death from a car crash especially tragic. When "Rebel" was released posthumously, Dean became an instant icon of teenage rebellion and alienation, and his cult continues to this day.

John Garfield
, 39

For reasons we cannot decipher, brilliant, brooding actor John Garfield isn't appreciated enough. But make no mistake, the handsome talent with genuine bad-boy street cred (he was raised tough on New York's Lower East Side) was a huge star in his day, so much so that his 1952 funeral was attended by more folks than Rudolph Valentino's ceremony. Notable for his intense, oftentimes roughly romantic performances in movies such as "Gentlemen's Agreement," "The Postman Always Rings Twice," "Body and Soul," "Force of Evil" and "He Ran All the Way," Garfield is considered by many as one of the first method actors (he trained in the famed Group Theater and worked with Clifford Odets). He was also victim to perhaps cinema's darkest moment when the left-wing actor testified at the scabrous House Un-American Activities Committee, who suspected him as belonging to the Communist party. Unlike many other actors, writers and directors (including Elia Kazan), Garfield refused to name names. Not surprisingly, work was suddenly hard to come by. At age 39, Garfield died of coronary thrombosis, which many speculate was worsened by the stress caused by the House's inquisition. His mislabeling and death are tragic.

Carole Lombard
, 33

This is an admittedly depressing list and the task of writing it makes one, well, incredibly sad. So getting to the screwball goddess Carole Lombard made us think ... we really need to watch one of her comedies ... and soon. If anyone can lift us out of the doldrums, it's Ms. Lombard, a lovable, vivacious actress who, though wonderfully adept at dramatic work, carried a pitch-perfect comic timing that's giddy, delightful and, in some moments, inspiring. Though she was terrific in "Twentieth Century," "Nothing Sacred" and "To Be or Not to Be," we'll choose her gleefully goofy, sexy and hilarious turn in the classic "My Man Godfrey" opposite ex-husband William Powell. We barely want to discuss her death but alas, she left us when her plane crashed in 1942, making her current husband, Clark Gable, a widower. All these years later, her sparkle was missing through the 1940s, when she surely would have further flourished.

Jean Harlow
, 26

Though his praise is hilariously effusive, we almost understand Franchot Tone's hysterical ardor toward lovely Jean Harlow in 1933's "Bombshell." The smitten Tone looks at a very game Harlow (who, throughout the entire movie, is making clever fun of her sexpot persona, on-screen and in real life) and says: "Your hair is like a field of silver daisies. I'd like to run barefoot through your hair!" Oh gosh ... so would we! The swaggering, tough-talking but endearing Harlow, the "Platinum Blonde" before Marilyn, was an unforgettable presence -- a vamp who was in on the joke but a young woman who was well on her way to more complicated, interesting work. A comic natural, Harlow was outstanding in movies such as "Platinum Blonde," "Dinner at Eight," "Libeled Lady"and the touching "Hold Your Man" (opposite her frequent on-screen partner and good friend Clark Gable). Harlow s 1937 death from uremic poisoning was shocking to her fans and the industry (she was a particular favorite with the crew). Though she survived and accomplished a lot (including three marriages, a legendary scandal involving the death of husband Paul Bern and 41 films), 26 was just too young to die.

Rudolph Valentino
, 31

One of cinema's first matinees idols and the original "Latin Lover," Rudolph Valentino was one of silent cinema's biggest stars, a man who made women, quite literally, swoon by simply staring intently at the camera. The erotic star of "The Sheik" and "The Son of the Sheik" was a powerful presence, and not simply for his large emoting and sensual image -- he had a lot of talent, a talent that was never taken as far as it could have been. Suddenly dying from a perforated ulcer in 1926 at the age of 31 , Valentino's death was such a shock that some women were so distressed that alleged suicide attempts followed. Though his career had endured a setback and critics had been turning on him, things were looking brighter for the erotic star. Still young enough to see the advent of talking pictures, one wonders how Valentino, if given the chance, would have fared in the newer format. Sadly, one can now only dream.

Adrienne Shelly
, 40

One of the first indie-film queens of the Sundance generation, gorgeous, pouty-lipped Shelly was an impressive beauty and perfect muse for independent filmmaker Hal Hartley in pictures "The Unbelievable Truth" (1989) and "Trust" (1990). But she was much more than just a wonderfully placed pretty face, because her impressive body of work as both actresses and director behind the camera proved. "Waitress," which she wrote, directed and starred in (alongside lead Keri Russell) was sadly, her final movie, released posthumously after she was murdered in her Manhattan apartment in 2006. A stinging loss, Shelly would have been entering a whole new phase of her career with a picture that became a critical darling. From all accounts of those who knew her, Shelly was an intelligent, down-to-earth, charming woman who loved old movies, New York and her young daughter. In her honor, Shelly's husband established the Adrienne Shelly Foundation, a nonprofit organization that awards film-school scholarships and grants to female filmmakers. Her spirit and influence lives on.

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by on Jan. 26, 2008 at 7:33 PM
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by on Jan. 26, 2008 at 7:36 PM
All those young deaths....that is so sad.....and you know what? I didn't even know about Brad Renfro!!!

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