It happens more often than perhaps it should: a celebrity, be it rock star, movie icon, or stud athlete, is upheld on a pedestal for many years during his or her career, only to come crashing down at some shocking revelation that leaves fans disappointed and disenchanted. Sunday, February 4th left me with a similar feeling, when it was proclaimed over various social media outlets that Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead in his New York apartment with a needle in his arm and significant amounts of heroin in the vicinity. To say it put a damper on my day is an understatement. As a great admirer of his work, I was, to say the least, a bit crestfallen to learn of his less-than-glorious passing. It seems pretty cut-and-dried upon first glance: a long respected, award-winning, generally loved actor leaves the world stunned with his unsavory departure from this life—and with three children, no less! Didn’t we feel the same way about Tiger Woods? Haven’t we been through this too many times?
I have always found it interesting to read the responses and reflections from all corners of the internet weighing in on a noteworthy tragedy. Some are pure lamenters. Some want us to focus on the accomplishments, urging us to leave the private things private. Some look into the now irrelevant future, wondering what could have been. Much to my dismay, what I came to realize when the pundits eulogized the late Philip Seymour Hoffman was that most people’s final comments only serve to dehumanize that human. He becomes his Academy Award, or he becomes the substance abuse that ruined him. Sometimes he even becomes the things that he never will be. To a certain degree this makes sense when we commoners attempt to look inside a film actor, for the vast majority of people who may claim to “know” Hoffman really only know the characters he played on screen. Memorable as those characters may be, what one sees on screen or even on the red carpet is not actually the full man.
And yes, it is true that I, who has never met Hoffman and actually only know him through his on-screen roles, admittedly succumb to this trapdoor of fandom. My regret is that this is perhaps how I’ve treated those lofty individuals to whom I look up and admire. I had a similar reaction when I had a chance run-in with Julian Casablancas, lead singer of The Strokes. I found myself thinking, “Here’s one of my music icons, who I’ve loved for years, and yet he looks surprisingly human.” It’s a phenomenon that I don’t think will ever be cured of, but it’s worth revisiting in these moments when we lose someone who was beloved for one reason or another.
Philip Seymour Hoffman was arguably one of the greatest actors of his generation. His broad range of roles shows the aplomb with which he handled his craft and the intense treatment and respect he gave to all types of people. He also stretched his talents into theater, including a stint of directing in The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, which starred the likes of Sam Rockwell and Eric Bogosian. Off the screen and stage, he openly struggled with substance abuse early in his career, including a couple well-documented trips to rehab. He had a nearly 15-year relationship with costume designer Mimi O’Donnell, with whom he had three children. He had described himself as a spiritual man, taking great influence from his Christian evangelist sister and declaring himself openly frustrated with the stigma in Hollywood attached to Christian beliefs. While he was never known to be one of strong religious conviction, his respect for equality in spiritual pursuit is something which is to be admired and remembered in his legacy.
These facts are biographical, pure and simple. And it still does not ignore the somewhat startling fact that at the scene of his death was found large amounts of heroin and materials which appeared to be used for the distribution and presumed dealing thereof. But, while you weep with me, dear readers, at the passing of one of the finest working actors in Hollywood today, think about, say, the passing of that wayward uncle that you didn’t know very well but still miss nonetheless. So passes a man who, alongside his immense talent, struggled with great demons. Are you, reader, not the same, a person with qualities that we hope outweigh the demons that we all have? At the very least, consider the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman, in this hopefully humanizing light. And, if you can’t remember what made him so great, check out any number of the 63 roles credited to his name—perhaps his Oscar-winning role in Capote. Until then, take these parting words from Lester Bangs, Hoffman’s character in the Cameron Crowe film Almost Famous: “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone else when we’re uncool.” The best we can do, in remembrance of Philip Seymour Hoffman, is take his legacy, our baggage, and everyone else’s, and exist in it as blessedly as we can.