Part Two: What We Talk About When We Talk About Philip Seymour Hoffman

On Wednesday afternoon I placed a little bouquet of three red roses amongst the flowers gathered outside of Pickwick House, the apartment building where Philip Seymour Hoffman lived. It took me a while to get there – I don’t have much experience in navigating the West Village solo and at the moment I don’t have a cell phone to help me out – but I had a map drawn from what I had seen on Google Maps the night before. I wandered around until I eventually found Bethune Street, which is a sort of side street, fairly quiet. Except for two people talking on a stoop on the opposite side of the street, the area around Pickwick House was deserted. As I trudged through the slush from last night’s snowfall, past Sunday’s police barricade, I made my way to the memorial. I only stayed long enough to make sure my roses stood upright and neat, wiping off the remnants of the day’s rain, but I did notice a handwritten note (“The Village will miss you, Mr. Hoffman”) and a lovely portrait someone had drawn in pencil. I left immediately; I thought I might cry if I did not. I did stop and look back a few times, though.

It’s a curious thing, crying. When I heard that Philip Seymour Hoffman had died – “found dead” was the parlance I heard – I could not have shed any tears. News like that is numbing. So I existed for the next twelve or so hours with the information weighing in my mind, even as I left the house with my mother to go to a movie. It wasn’t until 3:00 am, standing in my kitchen, that I thought about the Oscars and the inevitable In Memoriam tribute which will bear Philip Seymour Hoffman’s name, and I began to cry a little. And then, on Monday, taking the train to school, as I watched the latest snowstorm drift across the Manhattan Bridge into the East River, I felt a tear welling in my eye. Inclement weather, you see: I remember when it rained the day after Natasha Richardson passed away.

I have heard very few kind words said about Philip Seymour Hoffman at my school. If he has been mentioned at all in the last few days, it is mostly in derisive tones. On Monday, the professor who teaches the English class I am taking wrote the word “synecdoche” on the board and asked who among us could define the term. It’s a literary device, he reminded us, snidely adding – practically rolling his eyes – “I don’t mean the town upstate. It’s not that movie with Philip Seymour Hoffman,” making reference to Synecdoche, New York. Some students in the class actually giggled, like when you’re in a movie theater and people laugh at dramatic/traumatic plot elements because they don’t know how else to respond to such uncomfortable situations and emotions. Really, though, you’d think that the class and our professor might have exercised a little more tact.

When we talk about Philip Seymour Hoffman’s legacy, it should be a discussion of how his roles have influenced the cinematic landscape in ways both subtle and distinct. Without realizing it, we have been witness to twenty-plus years of performances in probably nearly every genre of film. Scent of a Woman and Boogie Nights; Happiness and Almost Famous; Along Came Polly and Capote; Mission Impossible: III and Doubt; The Master and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. We took for granted that he would be around for decades to come, expanding upon that diverse and exciting résumé. Discussing drug addiction is one thing (and I do hope that this tragic loss encourages help and solutions for America’s heroin epidemic), but don’t forget or discard the great work done in Hoffman’s truncated career. The oeuvre remains, impactful as ever. In time I hope we are all able to move beyond the tabloid headlines and remember PSH for what he accomplished in acting, his contributions to the local Labyrinth Theater Company and his charitable work. As Nancy Sinatra, who donated $1,000 to Labyrinth, wrote: “Some people we’ve never met die and we aren’t really affected by the loss, while other people we haven’t met die and the loss destroys us. I can’t think of him or see a photo of him and not cry again. This is a tough one.”

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4 thoughts on “Part Two: What We Talk About When We Talk About Philip Seymour Hoffman

    • Thanks. It kind of stunned me once the weekend was over and I was back in school – two friends of mine from a film production class each asked me how my weekend was (as they always do), but clearly neither of them had thought for a second that the death of an actor was the kind of thing that would have affected my weekend. It hadn’t registered for them at all.

      Looking back over the few performances I’ve seen from Philip Seymour Hoffman, I think it’s a testament to how good an actor he was that he was able to make such an impression on me despite seeing him in mostly small roles, with the exception of his roles in The Master and Flawless which dominate their respective narratives.

  1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and praise in memory of Philip Seymour Hoffman. It gave me some comfort in knowing that I am not alone in feeling the same way. I was in a state of shock, myself, when I heard the news, and shortly thereafter, was overcome with grief. A part of me is still very sad about Mr. Hoffman’s passing. His talent and dedication, and the quality of his work are admirable. I think that’s what we all aspire to regardless of our pursuits. There are some people who leave such a strong impression that they become an indelible part of our culture, and when they pass, it’s really tough to digest. Adding to the shock was that he was young. 47 is not at all “old.”

    I think some of us see a bit of him in ourselves. And I say all of this, not knowing him personally and having only seen a few of his movies. He’s such a chameleon that I had forgotten that I had seen some of his performances already: Almost Famous, Twister (which I hear he took just for the money to afford to get back to the East Coast), and Along Came Polly. Although he said in an interview that he wasn’t a leading man by today’s Hollywood standards, movies like Doubt and Capote led me to believe otherwise. I’m now watching his other works — my own way of paying respect.

    The only other death that hit me equally as hard was that of film critic and gifted writer Roger Ebert, I grew up watching his show, and after he lost his voice and jaw in his fight against cancer, I read his blog regularly. His passing was the equivalent of not being able to talk to a good friend anymore.

    I really applaud you for posting your thoughts. I hope it helped with processing your own sadness. I agree, I really don’t understand people who make snide or harsh remarks about Mr. Hoffman’s passing. The fact that the man bravely admitted his demons publicly and had staved them off for 20+ years is a testament to his own character. Sadly, it’s easy for people to pass judgment without really taking the time to put themselves in another person’s shoes. I try my best to chalk it up to ignorance. Life can be tough. The best we can do is empathize and support each other.

    • Thanks for your comments. You’re right, empathy and support are key. It can be so easy not to care or to toss out a barb; that much I’ve witnessed both from people I know and online. Well, I can only hope that future generations can respect the name of Philip Seymour Hoffman the way that his fans did for so many years, without immediately associating him with the manner of his death. I know I certainly won’t forget him. Not long before he passed I had started decorating my room with magazine photos of my favorite actors and directors (from Vanity Fair, Esquire, W, etc.) and upon buying the issue of People with Hoffman as the cover story, I clipped out one of the photos – one which I had already used in this blog post, the second photo – and placed it alongside all the other greats on my wall. It’s a small dedication, but it means something to me.

      I too was saddened by the passing of Roger Ebert. As a film fan and budding critic I had been a big fan of his style and I read his blog often. I remember when I read his final post, published just two days before his death, and although nobody knew he was in his final days, I recognized that it was the end of an era. From time to time I still Google his reviews to see what he thought of whichever movie, not necessarily because I’ll agree with his opinion but because I continue to enjoy his point of view.

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