Accidental deaths

The English writer Cyril Connolly once wrote that everything was a dangerous drug to him, except for reality, which was unendurable. Whether he wrote it with irreverence or despair I’m not sure, but it describes the trap that lies between depression and addiction. It can be hard to understand an addiction to drugs, an addiction that can threaten your life every single day, but if life doesn’t seem worth it, there is, presumably, no right way out. It’s rare that insights like these can help survivors through the death of others, though dwelling on notions of melancholy can sometimes bring subtle reprieve.

There is something strange that arises from the death of someone as prolific and far-reaching as Philip Seymour Hoffman: he was here while we were alive and will continue to live through his roles. This peculiar, almost discomfiting feeling of devastation, of connectedness and loss, is felt strongly when regarding a man so contemporary, so omnipresent and yet remarkably private as Hoffman. I think of that wistful phrase ‘I grew up with him’, even though I didn’t grow up with him, really. Yet, for the better part of my life he has been appearing in films. And compared to the other men and women of the silver screen whose film presences resonate with me – most of whom were born before 1940 – he has in fact been present in my life.

I expect that, sooner or later, the rest of my favourite old Hollywood stars will finally leave this earth, too. Their departures will be sad, but they won’t be shocking, because the cause in many cases will be what was once called, whether as euphemism or for lack of medical vocabulary, ‘old age’. Many have gone already: Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor, Karen Black. When Joan Fontaine died recently, I felt stung because all of a sudden there would be no more Joan Fontaine – the woman who played these roles I am desperately drawn toward five decades ago was no longer alive. I mourned Joan, the woman, but my mourning was mostly for a star who no longer existed. My mourning was an aching for the past.

But with Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death, we mourn the future.

There have been many beautiful, heartbreaking and heartwarming tributes written to Hoffman’s life and to his memory. But I also came across one that was particularly crude and disrespectful. There is always difficulty, and some weighted sadness, in writing such tributes, and the balance between personal grief and public regard can become distorted. But comments by the likes of Matt Damon and George Clooney about never allowing themselves to be found dead with a syringe in their arm because ‘they both have way too much to lose’ are not only cruel and useless, they are also wrong. Hoffman had so much to lose, and it’s sad to think that perhaps some of it had been lost already – to addiction. Any claim otherwise is unkind to him, to his fans, to survivors and to those who already died in a way that society labels undignified.

As the horrible, hopeless disease of drug addiction is again brought to light, and in such circumstances, I think back to all those we’ve lost. All those whose lives were partly lived in the spotlight: Whitney Houston, Cory Monteith, River Phoenix, Brad Renfro, Amy Winehouse, Heath Ledger – they all lived and died in our time. Overdosing on prescription medication, Ledger died only a few blocks away from Hoffman; both men were in the bitter, cold ‘comfort’ of their own home, gone in a moment of simple miscalculation. In these cases, it’s not so much the lives they lived that we mourn, although we remember those too. Really, we mourn their lost futures: what they had to give and the things that the future world will miss without them.

The film world is, of course, so much about what is there, what is being created, and what makes us feel.

Eloise Ross

Eloise Ross writes and teaches in Melbourne, and holds a PhD in cinema studies. She is a co-curator of the Melbourne Cinémathèque.

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