Are Hollywood Stars More or Less Healthy Than They Used to Be?

Elizabeth Taylor's death -- at 79 -- makes us recall the poor heath she suffered for several decades. Still, she outlived many of her contemporaries.

When we consider the travails of many young show business personalities, we may wonder, are Hollywood stars and other celebrities more or less healthy than those of yesteryear?

And are they happier?

Starting with the first question, I think the answer is unquestionably that modern stars are healthier. They are highly conscious of the relationship between health, beauty, and success. Angelina Jolie, for instance, does not seem as though she will suffer the kinds of health problems that Taylor did.

Taylor's great beauty was compromised early on by her weight gains and losses. In her 1984 autobiography, Baby Doll, actress Carroll Baker noted that Taylor lost quite a bit of weight between when Baker was introduced to the great star, and when they worked in the 1956 film, Giant. At the time, Taylor was in her early 20s. Taylor also took pills indiscriminately, according to the accounts I've read, and drank copiously with her legendarily drunken husband, Richard Burton. (Burton died at 58.)

Ironically, Taylor aged in Giant. And the Hollywood version looked far healthier than the actual person at a similar age. Of course, that was a film, and moreover a film made in the 1950s. But, still, Taylor's life caught up with her.

The other stars of the film, James Dean and Rock Hudson, did not live as long as Taylor -- Dean died at 24 before the film was released, and Hudson died of AIDS at 59. Hudson, of course, was a closeted gay man. Baker speculates about Dean's sexuality, since they were quite close and yet he never made an advance towards her, nor did she know of him being actually sexual with anyone in their Actors Studio crowd.

Baker also starred with Alan Ladd in the 1964 film, The Carpetbaggers, the last one Ladd made. The legendary star (see Shane) died at age 50 in an alcohol-drug coma, following an earlier shooting suicide attempt. Ladd was reputedly gay. Other of Taylor's friends characterized by ambiguous sexuality and substance issues died early -- like Montgomery Clift (45) and, more recently, Michael Jackson (50).

I wonder if today's young stars can have quite the inner torment that contributed to these men's early deaths.

On the strictly health front, today's stars work out more. They are more concerned about their diets -- although I am sure many use surgical, chemical and other aids and still balloon up and down. And they still, of course, take drugs and drink.

Are their substance addictions worse - since many end up in Betty Ford or equivalent places? I don't think so, overall. Taylor was not self-conscious in her substance abuse (she entered the Betty Ford Center late in life, at age 50), like many from her era. Today's stars and wannabees are more mindful of the downsides to substances. Even as many of them continue to use excessively, and some in an out-of-control way, I sense that more are controlled users, both more aware of the dangers of excess and having better self-control mechanisms.

Just a guess. After all, Burton and Taylor don't necessarily represent the actors of their period.

And which era's stars are happier?

My answer to that one is more complex. I believe -- looking at Jolie compared with Taylor again -- that many of today's stars are aware that creating a stable family life is an important ingredient for long-term contentment. I know -- easier said than done. But, still, Jolie seems to understand in a way Taylor did not at a comparable age that passionate love and success at family life are two different matters.

And contemporary actors are perhaps (although not as fully as we might hope) less likely to be eaten up inside by their homosexuality -- and the need to hide it.

At the same time, just as we mourn Taylor's loss as a larger-than-life symbol of a bygone time in America, there seems to have been some greater esprit that America and Hollywood once had that is lacking today. There were studio systems, for better and for worse; there was the "Hollywood community," with its rampant socializing and partying.

As for the better and the worse of that -- we need to acknowledge that something is lost when people no longer feel a part of some larger group. Working out only gets your mind and body so far.