I woke today and checked the news as usual.
I almost thought it was a joke, how could one not think so.
PhilipSeymour Hoffman was dead at 46 of an apparent overdose of heroin. I mentioned it to my friend at lunchtime and he said, “what an idiot”.
I had been aware of his issues with alcohol and I think he had always been rather open about it. He seemed to have processed it, made sense of it and understood his rejection of it and now I learn of other drugs as well.
The question is, why do we lose more actors than rock stars these days and why do they impact us so much when they die.
James Dean, Marilyn, even Jane Mansfield became legends after their untimely demises. More dignified performers in the past such as Cary Grant or Audrey Hepburn retired or today’s Gene Hackman or Sean Connery have stepped back with grace from acting and the public eye.
However Heath Ledger, Paul Walker, River Pheonix, James Galdofini and Cory Monteithwere all actors waist-deep in their careers and potential.
The news said today that Philip Seymour Hoffman died of an apparent overdose.
As Eddie Izzard said in his standup routine some ten years ago about Lady Diana’sdeath, and I paraphrase, “it was like the tv show was interrupted, we didn’t know how it ended”.
This is why I think we may be so touched by the loss of our actors.
The actor leads us into a story. The actor gives us something to connect with. The actor is the conduit between narrative and our own personal experience. Their sacrifice (and I’m not saying they are not well paid) results in our investment in their apparent suffering and the story we create for ourselves.
Brecht spoke of the idea of aesthetic distance. That was the difference between perceived reality and actual reality. Actual reality, violence, sex etc. made the viewer question what they were seeing as human beings and perhaps their needed intervention or revulsion. Aesthetic distance was where we could see the themes and narrative behind the action and find something that spoke to our entire nature. It is the difference between raw documentary war footage, pornography or actual graphic violence and fictional storytelling.
With fiction we can learn and find meaning and with the real footage we can only react, physically or emotionally on a primal level.
When we lose a performer, we lose that distance. They have offered sacrifice, in one way or another in many films or tv shows we have seen and enjoyed.
And when they go, we can no longer learn but only react.
It seems like a joke when we read about it. We laugh, because that’s what humans do when they have no other action. We are full of disbelief, anger, frustration, acceptance and momentarily stumble through all the stages of bereavement.
Or we say, “what an idiot” because we are left with no narrative, no story and cannot believe someone so rich in so many things could throw it away in such a mundane way.
We are left, with just a reaction, hollow, because all it tells us is that the story is over. There is no dignity, no nobility and no meaning. It is just the end. The rockstars at least leave us their music, the actors leave us the intimate moments that we shared with them in the context of a narrative. Unlike music, we can only truly experience them with our eyes open. That distance has been lost, it has all become real. We can no longer find any meaning, only react. And when our best and brightest, our representatives in exceptional stories go so soon, without a final word – it makes us know that we too will go, one day, with no dignity, no nobility and perhaps even less to show for it than it just being: the End.