Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Everyman on Heroin a Celebrity's Death Reveals an Ordinary Problem

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Everyman on Heroin a Celebrity's Death Reveals an Ordinary Problem

Article excerpt

A few years ago I was coming out of a subway station in New York's Greenwich Village when I saw Philip Seymour Hoffman, who lived nearby. He didn't look like a movie star at all. He just seemed like a regular guy: unshaven, simply dressed and slightly overweight.

It was Hoffman's "everyman" persona that made him a star, of course. He could play everyone from a prep-school kid ("Scent of a Woman") and a gay film assistant ("Boogie Nights") to a jaded CIA agent ("Charlie Wilson's War") and a duplicitous priest ("Doubt"), and make all of them appear somehow normal, average and ordinary.

So I hope we'll use Hoffman's tragic death from an apparent heroin overdose on Sunday to remind ourselves that drug addiction is pretty ordinary, too. I've got several addicts in my extended family. So do millions of other Americans, in every walk of life.

But that's not the impression you'd get from watching addicts in American movies, which typically lack the common touch that Hoffman brought to his own roles. Hollywood's drug abusers and addicts are instead depicted as different from average folk, falling into two broad categories: the working-class hoodlum and the tortured artist.

The hoodlum image dates to "Panic in Needle Park" (1971), in which Al Pacino played a small-time hustler who has been in and out of prison. He entraps his middle-class girlfriend, who turns to prostitution to support her own heroin habit. When she informs on him, the Pacino character ends up back in jail. But she meets him at the prison gates upon his release and they walk off together, which suggests their continued descent into crime and debauchery.

Or consider "Trainspotting" (1996), about working-class heroin addicts in Scotland. The entire movie is cast in grey, undescoring their bleak prospects. At the end of the film, the main protagonist - played by Ewan McGregor - promises that he's going to "be just like you," with a family, a television, and a washing machine. Translated: heroin addicts are not like you, or like me. They're rough, violent and amoral.

Other addicts are overly sensitive and delicate; that's why they turn to drugs. …

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