Yesterday morning, my friend Mel–who is living in Croatia–told me Philip Seymour Hoffman is dead. It was the first thing she said, once both of our Skype screens were up and I could see her face, pale as the moon, and her enormous blue eyes.
“What? Wait. What did you say?” I thought, or perhaps hoped, I had heard her wrong.
“Oh no,” she curled her brown hair behind her ear. “I, think–I think it’s true.”
When a celebrity–or otherwise famous person–dies, a strange phenomenon occurs: millions of people who never ever met a person experience a legitimate sense of mourning for that person. We feel it, in a very real way. Which is a sort of strange phenomenon.
When Richard Harris died, my husband heard about it before I did, and casually mentioned it while eating his Panda Express on a lunchtime phone call. I was so angry with him for, I don’t know, three hours, I suppose, for just blurting it out like that, with no warning. Richard Harris, who was none other than King Arthur in Camelot (a wonderfully surreal and cheesy 60’s rendition with Vanessa Redgrave as Guinevere and the Italian actor Franco Nero as Lancelot), the white guy turned Indian in A Man Called Horse, the rugged survivor in Man in the Wilderness, and in later years, Dumbledore and Marcus Aurelius and the pathetic yet endearing Frank in Wrestling Ernest Hemmingway. I can almost hear myself saying “I love Richard Harris,” and know that I meant it when I said it. But isn’t that a strange thing for me to say? That I love a person I have never met? I get it, as an English speaker I am in the habit of using the “love” word liberally, using it to describe my feelings regarding my daughter or my husband, but also my fondness for banana ice cream. But still. It’s a crazy thing we do.
Today as I am going through my day, studying and having conversations and building a fire and folding laundry and petting my dog, that sad little bruise I felt on my heart, the one for Philip Seymour Hoffman, occasionally feels tender again.
I’m not solely hurting because, as Dana Stevens said in Slate, “He could do anything, and he was just getting started,” though that is certainly part of it. And it isn’t solely because he was young, and he has a wife and three kids. There’s something else, and I’m trying to get a hold of that something else in my brain, to find a way to understand and describe the feeling of loss when an actor is taken from us. What is it about Philip Seymour Hoffman, or Richard Harris, or Heath Ledger that causes us to feel personal loss when they are gone?
Maybe it’s similar to that thing in pornography, where ( typically) the posing woman is looking straight into the camera, giving the viewer the feeling she is looking at him (her)? So because I have watched PSH become Capote before my eyes, get bludgeoned by Matt Damon in The Talented Mr. Ripley, and get blindingly high on gasoline in Love Liza I feel a certain closeness to him? He has, perhaps, been vulnerable in front of me (and millions of others, but still) and this evokes a certain feeling of intimacy. For some reason it appears to mean I can legitimately say, “I love Philip Seymour Hoffman.”
Maybe we need a new label for celebrity love, for that false intimacy we feel. I’ll admit I can’t think of an appropriate phrase. I’ll also admit I spent a fair amount of time yesterday pulling up pictures and interviews and film clips of PSH. I think It was a bit of a private memorial service I performed–a day of observance for this gifted man who chose to leave us.
In our Skype conversation, my friend Mel and I spent the first few minutes lamenting his death together. From here to Croatia, on our little screens, we shared some moments of sorrow for a man neither of us have met before we plunged into the detritus of our own lives. And perhaps that’s part of the debt we owe to Philip Seymour Hoffman–in his films, he took us away from our own lives before he took his own. And for that, I suppose I do love him.