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Starring Role

By Mary Summerbell

Robin Williams. Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Both their names now added to the long, long list of performers whose lives end tragically in self-inflicted death.

Entertainers – we all have our favorites and both these men rank right up at the top of my list. They are dear to me in a way that’s hard to explain. It’s amazing how someone we’ve never met directly can affect us so deeply, impact our thoughts and emotions, touch our lives in such profound and meaningful ways. It’s the transformative magic of their talent. Maybe that’s why we call them “stars” – because they shine their light on us from such a  distance.

This February when I found out that Phillip Seymour Hoffman was dead of a drug overdose, I felt so sad – for the loss of his life and for the manner of his death. I remember well the first time I noticed him on screen, in a small, rather nasty role of boarding house bully in “Scent of a Woman.” I was so drawn to him. I recall watching him, thinking, “That guy is a fantastic actor. He’ll be great someday.” I’ve admired him ever since, my favorite performance being his role as a maverick priest – maybe, maybe not, a pedophile – in “Doubt.” As someone who rarely watches a movie more than once, I watched that one four times in two days.

Then, in August, when I heard that Robin Williams died, had committed suicide, it was another, deeper, double whammy of sadness. Again, a sense of great loss for another artist I felt especially connected to through his work. Such an extremely unique and rare talent. He’s like Sara Lee – Nobody doesn’t like Robin Williams. He whizzed into most of our lives back in the 70’s with his frenetic antics and speed – speak as the alien Mork in “Mork and Mindy.” In that role he showed us the nonsense, and the sense, of our earthly life from an extra-terrestrial perspective. He followed that up with a lifetime of many successful comedic and dramatic roles. My favorites? The philosophically intense “Dead Poet’s Society” and the psychologically tense “24 – Hour Photo.”

Robin Williams. Undeniably a diversely great actor, but probably most belovingly remembered as the comic of comics, the clown of clowns, the joker of all jokers – the  ultimate trickster who made us all laugh and laugh. Even at his darkest and edgiest, never mean-spirited, always including himself as one of us he’s poking fun at. That’s one of the things I most admire about him. Wrapped in his zany humor were so many friendly nudges for all of us to be and do better, to get past our petty differences and see ourselves as the same in our humanity.

Robin Williams was the poster child for A.D.D. –  the epitome of the successful acronym-of-choice personality type. He’s the naughty kid who gets away with it because he is just so irresistibly funny – the class clown who has the kids, the teacher, and the principal all laughing at his misbehavior. He was the personification of the misfit who fits in, which is a large part of what makes him so amazingly appealing. We could all see our quirky self in him – our quirky self being not just accepted but loved and admired.

Robin Williams was the quintessential jester – the jester being the one society gives permission to be humorously irreverent to authority. Only he dares to question or criticize the king – to “speak truth to power” – without risking his own demise. So what does it mean when the jester, in the end, takes his own life? That’s the question so many of us struggle with about Robin Williams’ death. The jester’s job is to make us laugh. But, more importantly, his job is to tell the truth. So what’s the truth in the jester killing himself? Does it mean life just isn’t funny after all? Is it the ultimate gesture of hypocrisy? What?

There are no simple or certain answers. But let me tell you what I think.

I think celebrities pay an awful price to be such public people. Fame is dangerous in a way that no one can know until they get there. And then there’s no going back. It seems that people in the entertainment business are often wired by nature toward self-abuse and self-destruction. But we feed the machine by our paparazzi approach to invading their privacy. Sure, it’s O.K. to be curious about the background and details of a celebrity’s life. People are interested in people. But the level of constant pressure created by the invasive scrutiny and criticism of the public toward our entertainers is sickening. Few are resilient enough to navigate it successfully.

But we all have pressure in our lives, even the most anonymous of us. We all have forces in our lives that can bring us to the brink of breakdown or imbalance – or past that, into the depths of darkness and despair. Anyone one of us can feel overwhelmed by life – that it’s all too much and we wonder why we go on. We all go into the darkness sometimes. I do. Don’t you? And sometimes we go alone. In moments of solitude we all are left with our self and our Higher Power – whatever it is that we hold as meaningful connection in life. And in the dark moments of solitude some us survive and some of us don’t . For some, the connection is too tenuous to get us through the doubt.

Depression and despair can be deadly. As can be any kind of addiction. The lives and deaths of Hoffman and Williams are recent and painful testimony to that. Isn’t it time for us to reexamine and redefine what we have thus far labeled “mental” illness? I think we need to look at these issues from a fresh scientific view, but also, and more importantly, from a spiritual, or energy perspective. We need to ask – “What is it about human nature that makes us all so vulnerable to substance abuse?” “What drives our addictive tendencies?” “What is this hole inside us that seems so unfillable?” “Why do we feel empty so often with all the wonder and goodness life has to offer?”

As we ponder the questions inherent in the deaths of Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Robin Williams, of all who have fallen to depression, addiction, or despair, let us think of them as no different from us. We all are human – prone to weaknesses of our temperaments and personalities. So let us be compassionate in our view of them – not judgmental. Most important of all, let’s not let the darkness of sadness and tragedy overshadow the light of their legacies of laughter and drama, art and love. That’s the challenge of it – to focus on the light shining through the darkness, just like the stars in a clear night sky. Let those stars still shine brightly for you.

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