It happened with James Gandolfini this past summer. It happened with Paul Walker and Peter O’Toole none too long ago. And it happened yesterday with Philip Seymour Hoffman.
That dull, pleasant feeling you get when you’re idly tweeting or facebooking all but vanished the second you see the first reports of a death trickle in. “No fucking way,” you tell yourself. It’s a hoax, it’s gotta be a hoax. More reports come in. The skeptics buckle down, waiting for a confirming source. For maybe an hour, the person in question exists in Internet Purgatory, that quantum state of death and non-death that people in a certain sphere find themselves in through no fault of their own. Dummy websites trawl for user hits and ad money, because that’s the weird po-mo world we’ve built, where someone can’t die in peace until they’re buried. With every passing day, people online cycle through the five stages of grief faster and faster. We cry in the afternoon, we mourn by suppertime.
I can’t imagine what Mimi O’Donnell, her children, and the rest of the Hoffman clan must be going through. To lose someone so close so early in life so suddenly delivers the kind of immense anguish that’s impossible to process at once. It’s the kind that drags, that you never fully get over. More than anguish, you feel outright robbed. I wish them all the courage they need to face this most heinous of thefts. But I do hope that they take some small solace in the fact that Hoffman left this plane having affected countless people positively, and having left a body of work worthy of being dissected and fawned over by generations of movie lovers to come.
As the confirmations of Hoffman’s passing multiplied, so did the small but heartfelt condolences. As time went on, my Twitter feed filled with beautiful bite-sized eulogies celebrating a great man and his equally great body of work. Recollections of favorite roles, favorite scenes, and one-off encounters. The composite image that emerged from the collected messages of total strangers was that of a truly gifted performer of utmost generosity and geniality.
Mourning someone you don’t know is a strange proposition, but art demands that you forge a relationship of sorts with the abstract concept of an audience. For twenty years, Hoffman put in consistently great performances that endeared him to this abstract concept. His name was like a stamp of quality, signalling that even if the movie wasn’t great, that at least he would be. During the initial post-announcement parade of recollections, nearly everything he did from Hard Eight on got a nod. That’s the best thing about all great performers, Hoffman included; whether they’re onscreen for three minutes or three hours, their presence sears itself into your memory. They make it count. And for that, I can only thank Philip Seymour Hoffman from the bottom of my movie-loving heart.
Lives end, but legacies are forever. Rest in peace PSH.
Over the next couple of days, Juan and I are each going to write about a PSH movie we haven’t yet seen. I’m going to tackle Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, while Juan will do The Savages. It’s admittedly an odd way to mourn a man we didn’t know, but it’s our small way of honouring the man’s work.