Liz Smith

Michael Jackson, Gone Too Soon
Michael Jackson (M. Ryder)

"What do you read my Lord Hamlet?"

"Words, words, words."

So goes the exchange between Polonius and the Melancholy Dane.

AND IT's words, words, words we are getting now in the wake of Michael Jackson's shocking death at the age of 50. Laudatory and extravagant words, bitter words, accusatory and defensive words.

But what struck me instantly, as soon as I heard the news, was a terrible sense of deja vu.

Hadn't we somehow been here before? Hadn't we already seen Michael die so many times over the years -- the death of his innocence, the death of his youthful beauty, the death of his reputation?

As with the passings of Marilyn and Elvis, there was shock, but no real surprise ... these were icons fated to meet untimely and unhappy ends. And none moreso than Michael, who chose to live on the absolute precipice for so many years, even, finally, falling into the abyss.

Was he a victim or a predator? Trapped by fame or enraptured by his cosseted existence? A selfless humanitarian or a ruthless self-promoter? A breathless Peter Pan or a gruff-voiced, hard-eyed business mogul? Or did he inhabit all these selves?

Unlike his great friend Elizabeth Taylor, who was similarly used as a cash-making golden goose by her family and her old MGM studio bosses, Michael couldn't / wouldn't break away from his childhood traumas.

He seemed unable to begin to live out the life of a functioning adult, with adult passions and a basic center of reality. Taylor's career was secondary to her life as a woman, the mothering of her children. She managed to balance the inevitable narcissism of self-love with a more down-to-earth view of herself and her situation.

Michael, like Elvis -- perhaps because of the emotionalism music creates in audiences -- rushed headlong into unreality.

He and Elvis built their own prisons and fashioned their odd lives to suit themselves. They took no good advice. They were surrounded by the worst kind of enablers. (Indeed, enablers may have killed Michael!)

Many more words are to come. Current headlines are just the beginning, everything you never wanted to know will be exposed, and the battle for Michael's millions and the custody of his poor children will fill newspapers and tabloids for years.

So here's how I want to remember Michael -- not as the mega-star, not as Wacko Jacko, but as a lovely boy whom I got to know a bit during the filming of "The Wiz" when he was 16. He was shy -- surprisingly so, for somebody who was already a show biz veteran, and a star. His solo "Off the Wall" and "Thriller" albums were just around the corner. He was still the brilliant lead singer of the Jackson Five -- a group that never would have gotten off the ground had it not been for Michael's unique talents. (Much like the career of Michael's friend/mentor/inspiration Miss Diana Ross and her Supremes.)

There was nothing, and I mean nothing to suggest what was to come, in terms of eccentricity.

He had yet to alter his face at all. He was a handsome young man on the set of "The Wiz." I wish I could tell you something dramatic, but in those days Michael wasn't given to drama. The vibe he put out was one of eager, honest, hardworking drive.

His soft-spoken ways were not quite so soft as they later became. He didn't seem like a fragile Tennessee Williams' heroine, ravaged by life, and fearing the light. He was just a boy, on his way up. Charming.

At Elizabeth Taylor's wedding to Larry Fortensky, I was at Neverland and sat by Michael during the wedding dinner.

That night he explained to me his love for Elizabeth. "We were both child stars. We understand each other!" I was amused in that Michael was dressed more elaborately and had on more makeup than the bride. (And the groom, Fortensky, wasn't even often at the table.)

I saw Michael again a few years later, in 2001, entering a party. I witnessed the full ritual of the Star Entrance.

The room tilts, almost literally. Breathing intensifies or stops. Common sense and good manners go right out the window. Elbows and knees become lethal weapons. Other famous people stood on chairs to get a better look. Michael walked in celeb-slo-motion, a pale mink-lashed Bambi, murmuring little thanks-yous and benedictions as he moved through the throng, which parted for him.

Comforted by the familiar, wary of the price he'd paid, the cynical cynosure of every eye. It seemed impossible he could get enough oxygen to breathe. But for better or worse, scenes such as these -- and many more far more extreme -- were his oxygen, his lifeline. He'd passed on reality. And though I was with him several others times, I passed on trying to talk to him.

He was now otherworldly.

I preferred to remember my charming young friend who smiled with genuine warmth, laughed, and ducked his head shyly when complimented.

So at the end there is nothing much to add beyond the fact that this tragic soul was possibly the greatest most gifted entertainer of our age!

Remembering My Michael Jackson

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