Everyman on heroin: A celebrity’s death reveals an ordinary problem

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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. Defying his own pretty-boy image, Frank Sinatra pioneered the tortured-artist addict in “The Man With the Golden Arm” (1955). Sinatra plays a jazz performer, which Hollywood has linked to drugs — especially heroin — ever since. The sole heroin user in the Coen brothers’ latest movie, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” is a jazz musician, played by John Goodman.

We find out that he shoots heroin when his driver finds him splayed across a bathroom floor, with a tourniquet around his arm. But the driver shakes the Goodman character around and he comes back into consciousness. “He’ll be OK,” the driver says, and of course he will be. Not only do addicts have a different temperament from you and me; they also have different bodies, which allow them to survive even as they suffer.

But in real life, many of them don’t make it. Deaths from heroin overdoses have tripled in the United States since 1990, eclipsing the number of Americans who are killed each year in automobile accidents. That’s due partly to the skyrocketing abuse of prescription pills, which have become much more tightly controlled in recent years. So addicts switch to heroin, which is cheaper and more easily obtained.

That’s apparently what happened to Philip Seymour Hoffman. After struggling with alcohol and drugs as a young man, he got clean. But recently he became hooked on pills, turning to heroin after that. According to news reports, his friends thought he had beat the habit. But they were wrong.

And if you think that any of us are immune from drug addiction, you’re wrong as well. Addicts come in all shapes and sizes, and in all races and ethnicities and social classes. Let’s not let Hoffman’s untimely death reinforce the myth that heroin users are somehow different from you and me. Hoffman played the Everyman. And that’s who uses heroin, too.

But when I saw him outside the subway station, I’ll admit, I was star-struck. “I love watching you act,” I stammered. “Thanks so much,” he replied, grinning modestly. Then he continued on his way, a regular guy walking through the streets of New York.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. His books include “Distilling Democracy: Alcohol Education in America’s Public Schools, 1880-1925” (University of Kansas Press).


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