Following the recent death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Isobel Burston discusses the ever-present drug and alcohol abuse in celebrity culture, and the issues linking the two.
When Philip Seymour Hoffman died of a drug overdose at the beginning of this month, one of the first articles I read relating to his death went as follows: “Philip Seymour Hoffman’s tragic death: Hollywood pays tribute as it’s revealed his passing will not affect the release of Mockingjay, the final instalment in The Hunger Games franchise.” My immediate reaction was shock. After all, a man with a partner and three children had died, so surely concern over his uncompleted role in The Hunger Games triology should not be the initial concern.
Yet, it is easy to become disassociated from the reality that celebrities are just normal human beings. When someone like Hoffman dies, the world gasps and exclaims sadness at the loss of talent, yet like every other person, surely it is their family that suffer the real loss, and with whom condolences should lie, as opposed to with the entertainment industry?
The same can be seen with Cory Monteith’s death last year. Immediately, questions arouse as to what would happen with his character in Glee. The fact is that such hype exists around these people that even their deaths become distorted by the media and the norms that would usually surround such sad events.
It is easy to understand why so many celebrities appear to struggle with drug and/or alcohol addiction. If even the death of a celebrity cannot be treated in a regular and respectful fashion, then most likely that celebrity was not treated in a regular fashion in their lifetime. Constant bombardment from paparazzi and persistent intrigue into personal lives must take a toll. You only have to look at the past few Disney stars such as Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber and Demi Lavato to see evidence of the harm that can come from being subjected to constant scrutiny and attention.
The sad thing is help seems to be available to those celebrities who fall foul to the dangers of drugs and alcohol. Both Hoffman and Monteith had spent time in world-class rehabilitation facilities before their untimely deaths. Montieth reportedly checked himself into the Crossroads centre in Antigua in March 2013, a rehabilitation facility founded in 1988 by Eric Clapton (who himself struggled with addiction). The centre specialises in celebrity rehabilitation, with Britney Spears and Whitney Houston having spent time there in recent years. Nevertheless, mere months later Moneith relapsed before being discovered dead in a hotel room in July.
But what do their deaths mean to the rest of the world? Do they serve as a reminder of the dangers of substance abuse? Or does the celebrity culture surrounding them glorify it? One product of celebrity deaths relating to substance abuse is the so called twenty-seven club. The ‘club’ lists celebrities who have died at the tender age of twenty-seven, often in suspicious circumstance linked to drug and alcohol misuse. Jimi Hendrix, Amy Winehouse and Kurt Cobain, to name but a few, are all members of this so-called club, which has gone on to inspire several exhibitions and even novels and stage plays.
The circumstances surrounding these deaths appear to establish legacies that may not have occurred to the same degree, had the celebrity died of natural causes and at a later stage in life. Certain celebrities appear to go down in history as having been great, not simply for their lifetime achievements, but because of hype that surrounded their death.
It is hard to say whether a death such as Hoffman’s will serve as a stark warning of the dangers of substance abuse, or whether it will serve to venerate his memory further. Regardless, what should be considered is that like any other death, it is the loss of some one’s partner, father and friend that is sad in this situation, more so than any possible inconvenience a movie franchise may or may not encounter. Hopefully, Hoffman will be remembered for his achievements in life, rather than the hype and talk that currently appears to be surrounding his death.