The premise of What If They Lived? is pretty straightforward. Authors Phil Hall and Rory Leighton Aronsky profile 48 film stars who died prematurely, and speculate on their careers had they lived. This is a game anyone can play — indeed many of us probably have. For one thing, there is no wrong answer as to what Heath Ledger or James Dean might have accomplished had they lived past 30. For another, it is something of a dark pleasure to think of what might have been.
What sets the book apart from the purely speculative about these stars’ pre-empted lives are the detailed biographies of each. The 48 entries are broken down into a simple format. There is an introductory piece as to the overall impact the actor or actress had on Hollywood, then a discussion of their life and career, followed by the big question “What if they lived?”
The book is presented in chronological order, thus we begin with Robert Harron (April 12, 1893 – September 5, 1920). Harron’s most famous role was in D.W. Griffith’s landmark The Birth Of A Nation (1916). The final entry is Natasha Richardson (May 11, 1963 – March 18, 2009). Richardson is probably best remembered for her role in the Lindsey Lohan remake of The Parent Trap (1998).
As far as notable films go however, Heath Ledger’s Academy award winning performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight (2008) is the latest entry in the book. There is quite a gulf between the silent Birth Of A Nation and The Dark Knight, and What If They Lived? tells the story of the intervening years through the abbreviated lives of some of Hollywood’s finest performers.
Some of the more intriguing stories are those of Lon Chaney, Ernie Kovacs, and Leslie Howard. All three men died tragically — and while their careers were in full bloom. Chaney was cut down by throat cancer in 1930, Howard is believed to have been shot down by German fighter planes in 1943. Kovacs was senselessly lost in an auto accident following a party at Milton Berle’s house in 1962.
In addition to these sad and tragic losses there are of course the notorious and scandalous deaths as well. The first of these is the woeful tale of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Wrongly accused of murder, Arbuckle was worn down and blacklisted by an incessant campaign of innuendo, spurred on by the Hearst newspaper chain. He died penniless of a heart attack at the age of 46.
Three of the most famous Hollywood deaths belong to women. The deaths of Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, and Anna Nicole Smith are all explored in some detail. Hall and Aronsky’s speculations on what these women might have achieved had they lived are interesting, if not particularly groundbreaking.
What If They Lived? is a very enjoyable read. The bite-sized entries are nice, stand-alone pieces, perfect for browsing randomly, or read cover to cover. Especially in the case of the silent film era stars, there is a wealth of information easily accessible to the casual fan. Far from being sensationalist, What If They Lived? is a solid Hollywood history told through a unique perspective. It is definitely an enjoyable and thought-provoking read.