The Doomed Boys
I got to thinking about this the other day when I was watching the hit movie about cancer-ridden teenagers in love, The Fault In Our Stars, with Ansel Elgort as an aggressively adorable one-legged eighteen-year-old virgin. I love doomed boys.
I think I can pinpoint pretty accurately when it happened. It was sometime in the very early 1970's and we were at Bernie and Papa's house. Bernie was a lady that used to be my babysitter, and Papa was her husband. We weren't there to be sat upon; it was a social call. The adults were having their adult conversation, and the kids, my two brothers and I, were watching TV. A movie was on: A High Wind in Jamaica (1964), starring Anthony Quinn and James Coburn.
The movie is about a bunch of kids who get mixed up with a bunch of pirates, and although it sounds like the kind of thing that children might enjoy watching, it wasn't really a kids movie. I watched it though. At that point in my life I was already movie crazy and would have watched just about anything. At some point in the movie something happened that really got my attention. The children are holed up in the upper floor of a brothel while the pirates enjoy a night on the town. There is cockfight happening on the town square. The oldest of the boys, a blond moppet played by Martin Amis, son of author Kingsley Amis and later to become a renowned literary figure in his own right, leans out of the second floor window to get a better look. He falls. He dies.
For the rest of the evening, and in a way, for the rest of my life, all I could think about was that dead boy. Wasn't his demise tragic? Wasn't he the most beautiful boy of all the boys who ever lived? Why did he have to die? Life is so unfair!
Flash forward a few years. The CBS Friday Night Movie is a film called The Christmas Tree (1969) and stars William Holden as a very rich man whose son (Brooks Fuller) is dying of nuclear-accident-related leukemia. Spoiler alert! The movie ends with a dead boy lying at the foot of a Christmas tree with his pet wolves (yes, wolves) baying over his lifeless body. The critics were not kind to The Christmas Tree, but I loved it. Of course I loved it, because it is about a doomed boy, and I was obsessed with doomed boys. By then I was, at most, twelve years old.
What is it about doomed boys? What is behind the romance of it? Of course you don't want a character you like to die, but isn't the sadness exquisite? Don't you just love the feel of tears coursing down your own cheeks? And didn't you, just once in a while, place yourself in the doomed boy's shoes? What if that were you, bravely facing terminal illness? Everyone who ever treated you badly would be sorry!
And what about real life doomed boys, like River Phoenix, or James Dean, or Heath Ledger? They all did good things in their careers, but doesn't all that lost potential make them seem even more interesting? Just think what they could have done had they lived! I once asked a friend who was River Phoenix obsessed if he thought that River was hotter now that he was dead. My friend was taken aback. "Of course not," he said. "That's weird." Well, I thought it was a legitimate question. River Phoenix will always be young, beautiful, capable of who knows what. He didn't give us a chance to be be disappointed in his choices, or disenchanted by his decline.
Finally, let's look back to the '70s, and the king of doomed boys. I refer to Robby Benson.
In Death Be Not Proud he cheerfully and stoically endures a fatal brain tumor.
In The Death of Richie he plays Richie, so you know right away how that's going to turn out. Richie is shot to death by his own Father, basically for being a hot mess.
And in Ode to Billy Joe, he throws himself off the Tallahatchie Bridge because he had a drunken homosexual experience and can't live with the shame. As one does.