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Philip Seymour Hoffman may well have been the greatest actor of his generation. It turns out he was also a drug addict. Heroin went into his arm over the weekend, and two decades of future brilliance drifted back out, lost to the wind of what-ifs forever. God only knows how many Oscars he would have been nominated for, how many brilliant films he would have offered up had he survived, but that’s all gone now thanks to a terrible, life-ruining choice he made over the weekend. So, now, all we can do is remember. And we will remember, but the question is exactly what those memories will be.
It would be nice if we remembered dearly departed celebrities, politicians, actors and activists in all their nuanced glory. It would be nice if we remembered Richard Nixon as a statesman, as a pioneer in Chinese relations and as a family man who was married for fifty-three years, in addition to his Watergate scandal and subsequent resignation, but legacies are a whole lot more black and white than people. We tend to collectively pick out one or two key plot points and run with them. We like the basic gist more than anything else. So, Chris Farley is a brilliant comedian and a drug addict (who lost his battle with drugs), while Michael Jackson is a singer, dancer and weirdo (who just so happened to die of a drug overdose).
Philip Seymour Hoffman deserves to be remembered as an actor who just so happened to die of a drug overdose, not as a drug addict actor. That doesn’t mean we should whitewash what happened or refuse to hold him up as an example of why heroin is always a terrible decision, but unlike so many of his peers who preceded him in death with a needle in their arms, he did not live his life as a drug addict. He was not difficult to work with. He was not frequently late, frequently unprofessional or frequently unreliable. He was a man with a demon, a dark secret he kept hidden from most of the world. Heroin was his personal shame, and while it took his life, it wasn’t his life.
As a society, we spend a whole lot of time obsessing over people’s personal lives. We stare with wide-eyes every time the same old celebrities get busted for acting a fool or being too fucked up to play gigs. After awhile, those reputations start to overshadow their other accomplishments. They start to be inextricably linked with the art the person is producing. That’s why Jackson deserves to be remembered as a weirdo in addition to the greatest showman who ever lived. And conversely, that’s why Hoffman doesn’t deserve to be remembered as a drug addict. He was clean for more than two decades. Last year, when he checked into rehab, he did so quietly and without any kind of major incident. At some point recently, he fell off the wagon. He made a series of bad decisions, and he fucking died for it. But those bad decisions did not define his life. They only defined how he died.
I’m going to remember Philip Seymour Hoffman as a brilliant actor, a devoted family man and a really nice human being, who happened to die of a drug overdose. Given the circumstances of his life, I would recommend you do the same.