The carriage held but just ourselves
Deaths of some public figures have such suddenness that there’s no way for me, at the time I learn of the event, to process the multitude of feelings. One might be able to enumerate the feelings, but to understand them? For me the list of such deaths is rather short: JFK, RFK, MLK, Jr., John Lennon, Christa McAuliffe, and now Philip Seymour Hoffman.
I wonder why only one woman is in the group. Is it because women tend to live longer? Tend not to be the focus of animosities in the same way as men? Tend not to die as often from violent death? I suppose I might have included Amy Winehouse, but I didn’t know her work very well before I learned of her passing. Princess Di might have been included had I paid more attention to her life, but the Royal Family holds my attention as much as do the Kardashians, which is very little. The deaths of women whom I’ve known personally have had a much greater impact than have the deaths of women with celebrity, which is as it should be.
The deaths of certain men have represented the end of specific ideas or ideals for me. JFK’s suspended my belief in a bright future; RFK’s marked the end of my desire to be become involved in politics, not as a candidate, which I never had, but as part of a campaign; that of Martin Luther King, Jr. represented the end of my innocence with regard to the realities of race in America. Those three deaths caused me never again to be surprised when a liberal politician (such as Paul Wellstone in Minnesota or Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona) was to have an “accident” or be fired upon. Maybe it’s because liberals tend to favor gun control and conservatives do not that liberals tend to be gunned down more often than do conservatives.
Lennon’s death I felt as the loss of the brother I have never had. McAuliffe’s death had a far different impact because hers seemed to be the death of – to put it simply – a good person, a teacher who had lived a dream, not someone who sought to change the world (except through her students) or who had changed the world. While Judith Resnik was also on the Challenger flight, it was McAuliffe’s death that affected me. McAuliffe, a science teacher, was from neighboring New Hampshire, so there was recognition of achievement by someone from the small world of rural upper New England. She wasn’t Sir Richard Branson buying and selling her way into space; she wasn’t Resnik whose credentials included almost 150 hours in space and a Ph.D. in electrical engineering: she was just a normal gal living out a dream.
Some say Hoffman was a great actor – I don’t know what that means, really – but I think he infused the roles he took on with memory. By that I mean I have distinct memories of the CIA agent in Charlie Wilson’s War; the scene in Along Came Polly in which his character plays basketball with such magnificent enthusiasm and total ignorance of his capability and reality; just about any scene in Jack Goes Boating, the same with Capote; Flawless (especially the scene in which the gay Republicans meet the drag queens, hoping the queens will not embarrass the Republicans in a parade); Father Flynn in Doubt: the list could be extended to almost any role he took.
What struck me most about Hoffman’s work was that he often portrayed characters whom I didn’t like, even despised. Yet, I also felt he infused them with moments of nobility.
I remember the characters Hoffman portrayed, not that he portrayed them; some characters were far more memorable than the movies in which they appeared; some actors, whom I typically dislike, appeared likable or interesting when they appeared on the same bill with Hoffman. Maybe that is what is meant when it’s said someone is a great actor.