It’s been a bad few months for celebrity deaths. James Gandolfini was a tough one last June. That guy was super talented, and Tony Soprano was one of those iconic characters on one of those iconic shows that seem destined to stay in the public consciousness for a long, long time. I know it was one of my favorites of the past decade and a half, and from what everybody says, he was just a really great guy too, a gentle giant, the exact opposite of the character he played. He was only fifty-one, and he died of…well, gluttony, basically. The consensus seems to be that he just lived a pretty unhealthy lifestyle, and the list of rich foods that he reportedly consumed on the very evening of his passing alone seems to indicate the truth of that assessment. He seems to have been the victim of excess.
Then there’s Paul Walker, who died in the most ironic way possible in late November. The star of the Fast and the Furious franchise perished in a fiery car wreck in California. Early reports indicated that he might have been drag racing, but that theory was refuted, and eventually his death was blamed on speeding. Maybe he and the driver of the car, a friend of his, got a little too exuberant and underestimated the power of the vehicle, and paid a fatal price for it. He was only forty. It’s a shame, but I’d be lying if I said I was too broken up about it. He was a well-known name, but I’d be pressed to think of a performance of his I ever saw that really impressed me. He was competent, in my opinion, nothing more. I actually thought it was kind of funny when I saw it written somewhere about him that he had “only scratched the surface of his potential.” The fact that he was working on the seventh Fast and Furious movie seems to indicate that he had, in actually, reached the very limits of his potential, and was just rehashing a role that plenty of other people could have played with equal skill. This guy was never going to suddenly morph into Marlon Brando or something. He probably just would have gone on making fast car movies until people were no longer willing to pay for them.
But now this past week brought about the death of Phillip Seymour Hoffman, found at the age of forty-six in his Manhattan apartment with a needle in his arm and reportedly about seventy bags of heroin in a cache somewhere on the premises. This was a guy who had been pretty open about his struggles with addiction, and in the past couple of years especially had been dealing with a relapse and the consequences of that…concern from his longtime partner and the three children they shared being a part of that. I consider this to be the biggest loss of these three. Hoffman was better than good; he was great. I considered him to be one of the better living character actors, and probably one of the best living actors, period. In one of his earliest appearances, in Scent of a Woman, Al Pacino said something pretty much to the effect of “keep an eye on this kid. He’s got that it factor.” And damned if he didn’t…Oscar winner for Capote, and memorable performances in so many other films…The Big Lebowski, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Cold Mountain, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead…the list goes on and on. Here was a guy who, as phenomenally talented as he was, you really could probably say had his best work ahead of him. He was an actor who could demonstrate all the best and worst qualities of humanity in a way that was so distinctly human, so distinctly recognizable and easy to relate to, that there could never be a movie or play that would be anything but dramatically better because of his appearance in it. This was one of Hollywood and Broadway’s shining stars, and there’s nothing any lover of film and stage can do but mourn him.
And to what did we lose him? Heroin, yes…but, more generally speaking, addiction and drugs. Whenever something like this happens, there are always a lot of these newspaper and magazine columns and articles that ask some variation of the question “why?” Why would a guy like this, a millionaire, someone who seemingly had everything, including bucket loads of talent, throw it away to chase a high? I always find that question funny, because I’m someone who, quite candidly, has tried most drugs. I know how the pleasure feels. Hoffman said it himself when he was asked about it. He did the drugs because he liked them. He liked the way they made him feel. Anyone who has gotten high, anyone who has experienced the pull of their drug of choice…they don’t question what Hoffman was struggling with, and why he did what he did, despite every reason that he had not to engage in such self destructive behavior. That’s why, while I mourn his loss, and the loss of other actors who have shuffled off this mortal coil in much the same way- River Phoenix, Heath Ledger…one of the things that you’re never going to hear me ask is why they did it. I know exactly why, and I don’t fault them for it at all. Life hurts sometimes, and the pain feels bad, and the pleasure feels good. So while it is in every way tragic that the dragon has claimed another victim, and this one who undoubtedly had so much more to give, I have to say I understand what so many others can’t seem to. That’s just the way it goes sometimes. Sad, but true.