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Meditations on Hoffman

| Wednesday, February 19, 2014

According to an article I read in the New York Times last week, the demand for heroin in the United States has risen 232 percent in the past four years. Just this past Christmas, a friend from my hometown told me that heroin “came in last year,” killed several kids we went to high school with and hasn’t left since. Then earlier this month, one of the most talented actors of the 21st century was found dead in Greenwich Village with a needle in his arm.

The news of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death disturbed me deeply. My friend and I used to say that when we finally attended the Oscars, Philip Seymour Hoffman would sit at our table so that we could all throw ice chips at Morgan Freeman together. How could such a brilliant man, so sensitive to the nuances of his characters, give into a drug that numbs you into oblivion?

What I always liked most about Hoffman was his irreverence. His roles were not glamorous (I’m thinking here of Boogie Nights, his portrayal of a child-abusing priest or of the effeminate Truman Capote). You wouldn’t say he cared much for public sentiment. In 2009, he showed up to the Academy Awards wearing a beanie.

If Hoffman indeed disregarded public sentiment, where does heroin fit into the equation? Did he succeed in separating himself from the public sentiment — succeeding in devoting himself totally to the art of acting — so well that some ineffable loneliness got to him? Or was his overdose on Feb. 2 an effect of not succeeding at all, but rather relying too much on public sentiment and collapsing under the realization of its fickleness?

In Shakespeare’s “As You Like It,” the character Jacques’s situation is similarly ambiguous. Jacques has the option of returning to courtly society after living in the forest of Arden. In my Shakespeare class, we recently discussed the performance in Washington Hall by the Actors from the London Stage. One of the most curious things about the ending of the play is whether the people in Arden can return to their fickle society and sustain the genuine version of life they tasted in the forest.

In the last scene, we learn that Jacques does not return to courtly society with the rest of the characters. He chooses to stay in the forest, bidding farewell: “So, to your pleasures / I am for other than for dancing measures.”

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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