Separating Art from the Artist


philip-seymour-hoffman-deadI was out walking my dog yesterday when I learned of Philip Seymour Hoffman‘s passing. My first instinct was to stop and write something up on my phone and then edit the story once I finally made it home. It’s a media world nowadays where being “first” is all that matters, even when it comes to writing about someone’s death. I decided to wait and finished the final two-and-a-half miles.

Once I got home I got to work on writing up the story and by that time more and more details had surfaced and the situation became sadder and sadder. Hoffman, 46, had died of an apparent drug overdose. The gruesome reality of the scene, however, adds that the syringe was in his arm and he leaves behind three children (one son, two daughters) and his partner, Mimi O’Donnell, whom he met back in 1999.

A quote from one of his neighbors in the New York Times added another layer to the sad reality of his passing:

“He’s a local. He’s a fixture in this neighborhood,” said Christian McCulloch, 39, who said that he lives nearby. “You see him with his kids in the coffee shops, he is so sweet. It’s desperately sad.”

Hoffman had struggled with drug abuse before, but got sober at the age of 22 and in the “60 Minutes” interview to the right from 2006, shortly before he won the Oscar for his role in Capote, when asked why he quit he says, “You get panicked … and I got panicked for my life,” then he adds, “I have so much empathy for these young actors that are 19 and all of a sudden they’re beautiful and famous and rich… ‘I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I’d be dead.‘” The interview gives me chills.

Hoffman was reportedly clean for 23 years, up until May 2013 when he checked himself into a detox facility for ten days after relapsing, beginning with prescription pills until he was snorting heroin, the drug that would eventually take his life nine months later…

Oh, by the way, did I mention Hoffman was an actor and director?

With a recent role in the blockbuster hit The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and news today that his character will not be recast for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, he was also beginning work on his second directorial feature, Ezekiel Moss? That said, at what point are we expected to stop mourning the man that passed and begin looking at his body of work? Will we ever be able to look at them as separate entities again?

woody-allenI ask this as I found myself questioning a quote from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences publicist in a New York Times piece discussing the open letter written by Dylan Farrow, alleging her adoptive father, Woody Allen, had molested her as a child. As noted in the article, Allen was never prosecuted and has consistently denied wrongdoing.

In her letter she noted the “torment was made worse by Hollywood,” adding, “All but a precious few (my heroes) turned a blind eye.” Farrow challenged actresses such as Diane Keaton and Cate Blanchett, whom is expected to win the Best Actress Oscar this year for her role in Allen’s Blue Jasmine, to justify their decisions to work with Allen.

As for the quote from the Academy publicist I mentioned, when asked for comment they said, “The Academy honors achievement in film, not the personal lives of filmmakers and artists.” After reading what I wrote about Philip Seymour Hoffman is it possible to ever really separate the two? And by the way, Academy, you do periodically hand out the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. I applaud you for your recognition of good deeds, but does this mean we should just overlook the bad?

This isn’t to compare Hoffman’s situation with the Farrow and Allen story, each carries with it its own weight, some much darker and heavier than others. It’s simply a matter of noting aspects of these people’s lives that are impossible to shake or entirely ignore.

Will you ever watch a Woody Allen movie the same way after reading Dylan Farrow’s open letter? Will you ever watch a Philip Seymour Hoffman performance the same way again? Or a performance from Heath Ledger or Paul Walker? Or a film from Tony Scott or Roman Polanski?

As a society we become entwined with the lives of celebrities and certain aspects of their lives become just as much a part of their “achievements in film” as they do in their “personal lives” as the Academy puts it.

Is art separate from the personal life of the artist? Can we separate the two? Should we? In situations such as the charges levied against Allen and Polanski, do we choose to ignore their personal lives because we are too selfish to deprive ourselves of what we may be missing out on if we do?

The next time I see Hoffman in a film I will probably see some sort of tortured soul behind his eyes, a man I would like to hug and wish I could somehow help. But what will I see the next time I watch a Woody Allen film?

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