Hollywood is glamorous on the screen and in the imaginations of millions. But when reality intrudes on the art, the grime of human ordinariness, with all its needs, desires and compulsions, comes into sharp focus. The shine flees from the tinsel.
Two Hollywood stories have rubbed off some of the shine just as Oscar season puts movies front and center in pop culture. Readers and viewers can indulge in the pity of off-screen tragedy as if seeking something socially redeeming.
When Philip Seymour Hoffman, an actor known for making sordid characters come alive with sympathy, overdosed on heroin, real life intruded again. He suffered death's final indignity when his body was found with a needle still in his arm. Plastic bags, stamped with "Ace of Spades" or "Ace of Hearts," ironic symbols of his dealers' brands, were scattered throughout his Manhattan apartment as though they were powdered glitter on a movie set.
The other sad story focuses on Woody Allen and Mia Farrow, who were a couple for many years. Their family of assorted natural and adopted children has been bruised and battered by their parents' most public private lives. The most damaging story was revived by their adopted daughter Dylan, now 28, who claims that Woody sexually molested her when she was 7. She found her voice on the op-ed page of The New York Times.
Columnist Nicholas Kristof, who has exposed sexual abuse in the Third World, writes that he is a friend of Dylan's mother, Mia, and her brother Ronan, and published Dylan's account of what she says happened with Woody more than two decades ago. She was recently diagnosed as suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and says her troubles began when her father started "doing things to me that I didn't like."
There's finality to Philip Seymour Hoffman's suffering. The police try to find his dealers and his fans, and friends try to figure out why he returned to the growing numbers of heroin addicts. There's no ambiguity about the nature of his addiction. As soon as man, woman or child, whether rich or poor, black or white, experiment with heroin, they put their lives in danger. Heroin kills. Addicts can kick the habit for years, but they're never entirely free of the yearning for the poison. A friend of mine died of a heroin overdose in his 40s. He began taking the drug when he was a student at one of the most fashionable private schools in Manhattan. He and his friends thought it "hip." Family, friends, rehab centers all tried to free him. Only death succeeded.
Every supplier, big and small, is in business to meet a demand. They find it worth the risk of prison. A lot of people laughed at Nancy Reagan's slogan, "Just say no," but those who say no can live to enjoy life. Expanded information about the danger and damage in heroin is not a strategy for a cure, but it could help. Hollywood could start a campaign against the drug, using a young star's death to teach and emphasize the dangers.
The accusation against Woody Allen is difficult to parse because it took place during a bitter custody battle; some of his friends say the girl's mother planted the idea of molestation. Woody says it didn't happen, and Mia chose not to pursue criminal charges due to the fragility of the "child victim." That was probably the right thing to do, but the accusations were never considered by the courts.
"I know it's (a case of) 'he said,' 'she said,'" Dylan says now. "But to me it's black-and-white, because I was there." There's the rub. She was there, and we weren't. PTSD is not an exact diagnosis. The child has now grown up, and no one wants to dispute a child's suffering, but her account extends blame with an indictment of those who work with her father: "What if it had been your child, Cate Blanchett?" she asks of the actress nominated for an Oscar in Woody Allen's latest movie.
The Academy begins voting next week, and her question may prejudice some voters considering the nomination of Miss Blanchett. Isn't that unfair collateral damage? If Academy Awards were awarded only to the morally upright who work with the virtuous, there would be no Oscars. The messages dispatched by Hollywood are crucial in the culture because so many people listen. Hollywood could work on messages about drug abuse and child abuse, on behalf of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Dylan Farrow. But Hollywood, after all, is the tinsel factory. Abuse is not glamorous, but tinsel made useful might save lives.