William Hurt, Hugh Hefner and the complications of talking about people after they die

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Social media feeds fill to the brim with capital "RIP" letters and heart emojis after a prolific celebrity dies. Well, not always.

When certain celebrities die, their critics don't waste any time in highlighting their faults and failures even if others are in mourning.

Think about Kobe Bryant, whose death in 2020 in a helicopter crash sent shockwaves around the world. But some people also quickly made mention of a years-old rape allegation against him as despair on and off the internet surged. Or William Hurt, who died Sunday of natural causes. His then-girlfriend and "Children of a Lesser God" co-star Marlee Matlin accused him of raping her in her 2010 memoir.

Each mention of the allegation erupted in controversy, which is not surprising. After someone dies, fans often turn on those who try to disparage them.

Experts say no timeline exists for when it's OK to talk negatively about someone after they die. Rather, they say, a celebrity's alleged misdeeds as well as how they died may impact the appropriateness of various responses.

William Hurt, photographed here in 2016, died March 13 at age 71.
William Hurt, photographed here in 2016, died March 13 at age 71.

Take comedy icon Jerry Lewis or Hugh Hefner. Both died in 2017 at age 91, but their names have been in the news in recent weeks. Several of Lewis' female former co-stars accused him of sexual harassment and punitive behavior in an article on Feb. 23 in Vanity Fair. And Hefner's former girlfriends, Playmates and employees alleged a culture of abuse in A&E's documentary series "Secrets of Playboy," which is currently airing.

More than enough time has passed to allow for a closer examination of these stars, says Robert Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at the Newhouse School of Public Communications Syracuse University.

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Jerry Lewis hams it up in Union Station for a scene from Paramount's 1955 comedy "You're Never Too Young" with Dean Martin.
Jerry Lewis hams it up in Union Station for a scene from Paramount's 1955 comedy "You're Never Too Young" with Dean Martin.

In fact, these conversations may have happened a lot sooner if these stars died today.

"There did used to be a sense that there was this almost sacred space after someone had died," Thompson says. "You didn't say anything bad at their funeral and you waited a certain time before you said something bad thereafter. That included your uncle, and it included celebrities."

The internet and social media altered the way people communicate. Newspaper editors and heads of television stations previously called the shots on what was appropriate to talk about. Now? Individuals speak freely, online, whenever they want.

Hugh Hefner at the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles in 2007.
Hugh Hefner at the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles in 2007.

"The lines of 'appropriate' and 'inappropriate' grief expressions, public conversations about their lives on social media – both positive and negative – and time limits, are immediately blurred and often unacknowledged," says Melvin L. Williams, assistant professor of communication studies at Pace University.

Different cases call for different responses after someone dies, of course, including how someone died. Bryant died at 41 with his daughter Gianna and seven others. Hefner and Lewis died of natural causes.

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Kobe Bryant had become much more reflective when he retired from the NBA, those close to him say.
Kobe Bryant had become much more reflective when he retired from the NBA, those close to him say.

Our collective raised consciousness – which has grown in the last decade in tandem with the rise of social media – only accelerated further due to the #MeToo movement. Many stories never discussed before, particularly about prominent men and their abuses of power, suddenly saw the light of day.

"I don't think there will be any time period after, let's say, Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby die," Thompson says. "They will be open season for that kind of thing. We already saw it with Jeffrey Epstein. Nobody was waiting to be polite to Jeffrey Epstein until X number of time had passed."

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Harvey Weinstein arrives in a wheelchair to an arraignment hearing on July 21, 2021, in Los Angeles, where he pleaded not guilty to 11 sex crime charges.
Harvey Weinstein arrives in a wheelchair to an arraignment hearing on July 21, 2021, in Los Angeles, where he pleaded not guilty to 11 sex crime charges.

Reaction to Epstein's 2019 death was nothing like the conversations after Bryant died, which is exactly how it should be, Williams says.

"There should be conversational differences when speaking of a convicted celebrity versus an alleged criminal celebrity figure," Williams says. "However, in the court of public opinion, there exist gray areas where some alleged celebrity figures never supersede their accusations, even when proven innocent."

These days, even the nicest person in the world could die and some people would still stomp on their (virtual) grave.

"Social media has really lowered the barriers of what's considered polite and decent," Thompson adds. "But I don't want to say that's necessarily a bad thing because we were a little too polite and decent about a lot of things that we didn't talk about that we should have been talking about."

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: William Hurt, Kobe Bryant: When to criticize a dead celebrity