I’m not sure why the sudden, shocking death of Philip Seymour Hoffman last Sunday hit me so hard, but it did. I’d never worked with Hoffman, and have seen only four of his fifty-plus movies -- Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, The Big Lebowski, and Almost Famous. Truth be told, I don’t recall much of his performance in either of those Paul Thomas Anderson films, but he was spectacular in the latter two.*
The great cultural tragedies of my generation were the assassination of political figures -- President John F. Kennedy, his brother Bobby, and Martin Luther King -- along with the drug-related deaths of three groundbreaking and astonishingly creative musicians, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison. Losing those six amazing people went a long way towards killing off whatever hopes the turbulent decade of the 60’s had engendered of a better world emerging from the cultural straitjacket of the button-down 50’s.
This is all ancient history to most of you, of course -- dusty stories from a past you know only from grainy black and white images on television. But having lived through them, I can tell you those were some rough times.
Now we’ve had three more celebrity deaths in relatively close proximity: the passing of Heath Ledger, Paul Walker, and Philip Seymour Hoffman -- each a talented actor who died much too young -- but where Ledger and Walker were just beginning to hit their stride, Hoffman had already become an icon in the business. And where Heath Ledger and Paul Walker were the kind of impossibly handsome young gods prized by Hollywood but rarely seen on the street -- Golden Boys whose easy good looks held the promise of breezing through life without ever breaking a sweat -- Philip Seymour Hoffman was something of a schlub, a big fleshy lump of a guy who doubtless had all sorts problems the rest of us normal flawed humans could relate to. Look at that photo above: is that a major movie star or just another harried suburban dad coaching a Little League team or shoving a giant shopping cart through the endless crowds at the local Costco?
But up on the silver screen, he was an astonishingly powerful presence.
Death takes us all in the end -- the beautiful, the ugly, talented and dull alike. The billionaire will live a lot longer, but even he cannot escape the sharp blade of the Grim Reaper any more than the most wretchedly hopeless gutter-dwelling meth-head. It’s hard to see anybody die so young (and yes, I’ve reached an age where 46 now seems “young”), particularly someone with so much to offer. Philip Seymour Hoffman may well have been the greatest actor of his generation -- of any generation, really -- and such a protean talent doesn’t come around very often. More than that, he seemed like an ordinary mortal: normal guy who was somehow capable of extraordinary things. Not quite a superhero, but as close as any we’re likely to see.
So it seems the rough times aren’t over after all, and in some ways, the hardest times may lie ahead. I don’t know about that, but I do feel a palpable sense of loss at the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman. In a world that seems to grow darker with each passing year, the bright light he cast will be sorely missed.
* I didn’t really care for Hard Eight or Boogie Nights, which is one reason I’m not a big fan of Paul Thomas Anderson.