Philip Seymour Hoffman, who overdosed over the weekend on a drug that knows no correct dosage, exhibited extraordinary gifts in Capote, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Doubt, Boogie Nights, and The Master. But his on-screen persona convincing people who never met him that they knew him well stems less from his theatrical capabilities than the capabilities of the theater.
“At my office today everyone is talking about the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman and how great of an actor he was,” a letter writer to Dear Prudence explains. “I made the comment that while he was talented, he was also a junkie who just left three children without a father. I am now getting the cold shoulder from many colleagues.”
CNN’s Ashleigh Banfield floated the idea of charging the people who sold him heroin with “felony murder.” The bespectacled host told viewers that “the guy who gave an addict the drug that killed him deserves to go away for life.”
The cops, perhaps disagreeing with Banfield’s guest Alan Dershowitz that blaming the dealers represented scapegoating, arrested several pushers thought to have sold him heroin last summer. They have yet to arrest the doctor that prescribed the recovering addict pain pills that nudged him into relapse.
Strangers descended upon Hoffman’s Manhattan neighborhood with flowers and candles. Actual neighbors confessed to not knowing that Hoffman lived on their block.
The scene illustrates the morally inverted universe in which we inhabit. By remote, we make moral pronouncements about injustices on other continents, give “just pennies a day” to save someone else’s children, and grieve strangers as though family. So much time gazing at the world beyond leaves us oblivious to the world within reach. “If everyone in the world is as dear to me as my next-door neighbor,” Thomas Fleming reflects in his excellent book The Morality of Everyday Life, “I might be tempted to treat my neighbor as a complete stranger.”
Therein, Fleming ponders the phenomenon of imagining ourselves citizens of the globe before members of a family, neighbors on a block, or residents of a town. Too often, handwringing over Darfur or Tibet covers for dodging responsibilities to those closest to us. It’s as though the right moral posturing involving distant people who might as well be abstractions absolves us from the neglect of the very real individuals in our orbit. Barack Obama scolding us in 2012 to be our “brother’s keeper” as his actual brother lived in a box exemplified the folly of this sentimentalism.
“Charity does begin at home,” Fleming reminds, “and the burden of charity is most easily discharged toward those with whom we are already connected by bonds of blood and experience. Charity toward strangers requires effort, and the more foreign the stranger, the greater the effort required.” The same goes for sympathy.
Though by no means new, this phenomenon has exploded with the explosion of mass media. We’ve seen Phillip Seymour Hoffman pixelated or projected so we feel as though we know the real him. The fact that he surrounded himself with bags of heroin the way that Elton John does with flowers shows that we didn’t know him at all. Even many close to him probably didn’t know him in this strung-out sense. If we could buy him as Truman Capote, then certainly we could buy him as anything but a junkie.
Americans, in this regard, are not unlike the poor schleps featured on the program Catfish who fantasize that the beautiful faces attached to the messages in their inbox belong to the senders. Manti Te’o had an imaginary girlfriend that he never met. Many of his countrymen, who laughed at the Notre Dame linebacker, have fake friends that they meet only in primetime or on the silver screen. Te’o could reasonably claim that love makes us crazy. What’s everybody else’s excuse for their imaginary friends?
There’s something terribly fake, not unlike the prosthesis Hoffman’s costar wore in Boogie Nights, about deluding oneself into membership in a community of complete strangers foreign to one’s senses. It dilutes the store of human compassion to spend it all on that paradoxical being, the unknown celebrity. Why not instead give a hug to those we can actually hug?
Moviegoers endured a loss last weekend in Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s passing. Three kids and their mother felt it more acutely.