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.”