When an actor passes away, the world goes abuzz before falling into the silencing shock of memoriam. The temporary media phenomenon following a star’s death, especially if it is accidental, is often fueled with speculation, rumors, and outrageous tabloid headlines that soon fade away when the media’s attention is drawn to a new tragedy. The next time an audience sees a late star’s face is usually at an awards ceremony during a segment that honors Hollywood’s late greats. There is an exception to seeing a familiar, deceased face again, reminding audiences of just who is missing from the brilliantly lit sky of Tinseltown stars; this happens when a film debuts posthumously with a recently deceased star. When a star dies, we often feel personal loss accompanied by the strong feelings that often hit us when a major tragedy occurs.
I knew going to see The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part One that I would once again see one of my favorite actors. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Academy Award winner and indie powerhouse, passed away while he was in the process of reprising his role as Plutarch Heavensbee in the third installment of the franchise. I remember exactly where I was when I heard the news of his passing: sitting in my car, waiting for my dad to finish up in the grocery store. It was a cold day in February, the day of the Super Bowl. I read in horror the details of his accidental death; he passed away of a mixed drug cocktail (including heroin) overdose, found with a needle in his lifeless arm. I did not believe such a great actor was actually gone and felt so affected by the loss I wrote a poem to help console the nagging feeling of losing someone that—granted I never knew—felt so familiar to me. I first saw Hoffman in Almost Famous in a role that I will always hold as one of my personal favorites with one of his lines in the film being among my mantras in regards to journalism: “You wanna be a true friend to them? Be honest, and unmerciful”. I was nervous going to see Mockingjay; I worried that watching him in one of his last roles would make me so sad I would be distracted from the rest of the movie. Throughout the film, I had to remind myself he was actually gone. Seeing him alive and well felt so strange. He should still be here, I said to myself. The déjà vu of watching him on screen was a strange sensation, especially when I went home and watched another one of his final movies, A Most Wanted Man. It did not feel real.
Why do we feel so personally affected by the deaths of people we do not even know? I felt similarly this past summer when Robin Williams passed away and even stranger when Glee star Cory Monteith passed away in the summer of 2013. We feel like we know them because of the media’s reinforcement of the idea that the people we watch on screen are invincible. We disregard the idea that these people can die because they seem so far away from our realities, yet paradoxically, we feel so damaged when they actually do pass on. I grew up with Hoffman and Williams, amazed by their range of talent when playing such diverse roles. I felt like I knew them because I watched their performances countless of times, believing they were just like the DVDs I owned: expendable and available to watch for the rest of my life. It still feels personal, the unfairness of a Hollywood legend’s life cut short. I felt even more twinges of nostalgia when a commercial for one of Williams’ last movies, a third installment of the Night at the Museum movie franchise, played before The Hunger Games film came on. As time passes, we are not reminded of the great actors who left us; we just become attached to new faces to replace the old ones. That—at least to me—is one of the saddest effects the world of show business has on its audience.