Monday, February 3, 2014

The Curiosity of Loss

Okay, so it’s officially Monday now, but I’m going to pretend it’s Sunday for the purposes of this blog. (Just the opposite of how I treated Saturday as Sunday yesterday …)

Anyway, my thinking today is influenced by the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman. One of my Facebook friends said something to the effect of “wait a couple of days before you start shitting on him,” and surprisingly to some, I’m sure, that’s not my topic. Oh, I’m certainly questioning the whole “finest actor of his generation” thing; I saw him give some very good performances (in, say, “Capote” or “The Savages”) and some very, very bad performances (if I never see anything as bad as “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” or “The Seagull,” I’ll be a lucky man [side note: to be fair, the former was hindered by a bad director who let all four actors parade vastly different styles – the worst being the horrendous work by Vanessa Redgrave – and the latter was hindered by a hack director who didn’t seem to know either what the play was about or how to blend an ensemble].)  In our house, Mr. Hoffman was known as “Mushmouth,” due to his tendency to swallow his dialogue in most roles. (Similarly, his sometimes partner, John C. Reilly, is known as “Snagglepuss,” due to his being a sound-alike for the animated character.)

But I digress…

No, my purpose here is to neither praise nor damn Mr. Hoffman. For every person who loved all his work, there are probably an equal number who couldn’t stand him, and being possessed of personal opinions, both groups are right. No, I’ve been thinking about how attached we become to celebrities and public figures. There are plenty of actors in particular whom I’ve never met and will never see unless it’s on a screen (and given my love of old movies, many are already long dead), but whose death would make me sad. Why is that? I don’t think it’s a personal loss. It’s not the prospect of not having any more performances by him; Sean Connery, Bob Hoskins, and Gene Hackman have all retired, so we won’t be seeing them on screen anymore, but that doesn’t make me sad, per se.

I’d want to say it’s the mere death of someone; but people die every minute and, for the most part, we don’t mourn their losses. Even most celebrities don’t spark that sort of reaction. I mean, Maximilian Schell, himself a fine actor (I thought his cameo in “Julia” is one of the finest bits of acting I’ve ever seen), died the day before to little fanfare.

Is it his youth? His being a father of young children? Again, hundreds in those categories and more die every day without notice. Did people felt they knew him? Doubtful. Most people can separate the fiction of an actor’s performance on screen with reality. Even then, he played a range of characters from loveable (whom you’d want to know) to reprehensible (whom you wouldn’t), so identification like that is unlikely.

Ultimately, I thought he was mostly a good actor, but with enough bad performances (such as his impersonation of Wile E. Coyote, “Super Genius” in “The Master”) to make him not especially noteworthy (unlike, say, James Gandolfini, who was always a welcome presence and who died much too young). He wasn’t an actor like Bill Cobbs or Stephen Root or Margo Martindale whose mere name in the credits makes me sit up in anticipation. He was a familiar name, and that was about all. I didn’t choose a movie based solely on his name. (I can’t actually think of any actors who fit into that category.)

Am I sorry at his death and the fact that we won’t see him on screen again? Of course. But my point is more to wonder at the outpouring of emotion today. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing; I just don’t get why so many people were compelled to not only share the news (how many variations of the story were on your own Facebook feed? Probably as many as shared the “Justin Bieber gets a DUI” story or “What ‘Game of Thrones’ character are you?” – and does that kind of overkill remove any impact, I further wonder?) but also to say something along the lines of “I liked his performance in (x movie).”

I’m not saying that the people who did the postings were wrong. There was obviously some connection they felt that I don’t. I know there are plenty of celebrities I’ll never meet whose deaths will fill me with that kind of sorrow. But my question is where it comes from? How do those linkages form within us? I know they’re there; I just don’t know how they got there.


  1. I didn't realize Maximilian Schell died. One of my few good memories of my very young childhood was seeing him in The Black Hole.

  2. I think with many celebrities, there is an illusion that we know them, even though the relationship is one way (and we know less about them than we think). A celebrity who we especially like/admire/follow becomes so familiar that s/he can feel like almost like a family member. I think that illusion is at the very core of celebrity.