I just saw Philip Seymour Hoffman’s posthumous last film, “A Most Wanted Man.” And maybe it’s too easy to say in retrospect but it was like watching a man on a suicide mission, chain-smoking, wheezing, overweight, rarely making eye contact with the camera as if he was embarrassed. (Yes, it’s an internal performance, but still.) No question he’s the most soulful of actors with a kind of sweet/tragic beauty but in this movie he just seems ill.
Watching Hoffman was, for me, like a recent viewing of “The Misfits,” the last film for Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable (an unlikely romantic couple, Gable 59 and looking 65; Monroe 33 looking 40), though Monroe had once fantasized Gable was her father. Still beautiful though bloated, bad-wigged, boozy and sometimes dazed, Monroe’s is a brave performance but difficult to watch, almost too naked and revealing.
I mentioned this to Joyce Carol Oates, who didn’t agree that Marilyn looked bad, so perhaps I am wrong as Joyce should know, having written “Blonde,” the brilliant, mesmerizing, often hallucinatory book about our most iconic star/goddess. I may need to discuss this with another serious Monroe fan, Joyce Wadler, who understands tragedy but can make you laugh at it.
The other day I saw a great painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat, a true wild child genius if there ever was one. Every time I see one of his wonderful paintings (and there are many) I want to cry. Dead at 28 in 1988, his art still feels new, raw and urgently beautiful. He did many self-portraits thereby creating and insuring his icon status. But does one really have to die young to be idolized?
When Amy Winehouse died I was heartsick. “Back To Black” was one of my all-time favorite albums (yes, I still call them albums). I was sad but glad when they released posthumous CDs so I had more to listen to, all of it good, her soulful rendition of “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” haunting (if only they’d gotten rid of that overzealous background drummer). I remember seeing Winehouse at the Grammy’s stunned by the news of her win, embraced by band mates and friends and even her “mum.” She never finished another album. Drank herself to death? My God. Where were her friends and family then?
It kills me when the young and talented die. It always did, but more so now that I’m not young and possibly because loss has become a more intimidate part of my life so I think about it a lot. Death is the inevitable last stage of life (even if you think it’s the nastiest trick played on humans) but it’s not natural when you’re twenty-seven, like Amy and Janis and Jimi and Jim. It’s different if you’re Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper and Richie Valens, all of whom died in the same plane crash. Sad for sure, but at least not self-induced.
I saw Janis Joplin perform once, an amazing mess, her tragic end forecast in the drunken patter between songs where she forgot the words and just about oozing out of her pores along with Southern Comfort.
The day Heath Ledger died I was in a taxi just a few blocks from the actual scene watching the story unfold on one of those televisions they had recently installed into taxicab’s backseats. I kept thinking, it can’t be true, the young actor who’d given such a heartbreaking performance in “Brokeback Mountain,” dead? In the days and weeks that followed the story was everywhere, changing hourly—suicide? accident?—the staggering amount of pharmaceuticals he’d ingested—uppers, downers, sleeping pills—the calls to his recent actress/girlfriend, the maid who had apparently cleaned his room while he lay naked on a massage table dead or dying (a horrifying and macabre image), the actress wife from whom he was separated fighting her way through reporters, a golden boy gone too soon.
I feel compelled to add Mama Cass because you could say we had some history (see my story, “The Last Toke” in “The Marijuana Chronicles”, and so I felt particularly bad when she died. The most outstanding member of the Mamas & Papas, and surely the one everyone remembers, the kind of young woman one rarely saw on stage, Cass Elliot (nee Ellen Naomi Cohen) a large girl with a large voice, a buoyant personality or so it seemed, belting out songs, prancing in her over-sized muumuus and knee-high boots, was a new kind of adorable. By the time she died in a London hotel (after a sold-out solo performance at the London Palladium) the Mamas & Papas were history. First reports said Cass choked on a ham sandwich, a cruel joke and not true, a heart attack did her in at 32, most likely due to a crash diet of fasting four days a week, another cruel joke as she had lost 80 pounds but it killed her. After she died I went backwards in her career, got the records she made before the Mamas & Papas, first as part of the folk/pop trio the Big Three (if you’ve never heard her bluesy “Young Girl’s Lament” you’re in for a treat). Then the quasi-rock-whatever group, the Mugwumps, not good though I sort of like their rendition of the Coasters famous “Searchin.” Before writing this I watched a few YouTube videos and Cass always looks happy when she’s performing. Like Arthur Miller said about his ex-wife , “I never saw Marilyn unhappy in public.” So does public adoration make up for private deprivation or is that too easy, too corny?
I didn’t watch Glee so I didn’t really know the actor Cory Monteith though had to endure his TV girlfriend making all those tearful statements on news stations everywhere, his smiling face broadcast along with it. Another victim of a drug overdose that posed the nowadays banal question: Why, when you’re young, talented and beautiful would you throw it all away? With some I suppose they don’t expect to die; they figure they’ve played the life and death game before and won, so they will win again. But with others it seems as if life is too much for them, their talent too great, coupled with a sensitivity just barely beneath the skin. You can see it in practically every Monroe performance, and one saw it with Joplin and Winehouse.
I don’t want to get maudlin (I know, I know, I already have), don’t even know what got me started (Oh, yes, Philip Seymour Hoffman in “A Most Wanted Man”), and surely do not want to start compiling the list of died-too-young celebs—Kurt Cobain, Bruce Lee, John Belushi, River Phoenix, Elvis (which clearly I am doing but will stop). Forgive me, these days I have loss on the brain. But damn, can’t we assign a sponsor/mentor/watchdog/nurse to anyone who gets too famous too young, who appears just a bit too fragile for fame and fortune? Impossible, I know. But I worry.