I'd been trying - as part of my general "time to reboot consistent blogging" strategy - to put together a piece on Justin Bieber, because his arrest really caught my attention.
And then Philip Seymour Hoffman died.
There's been the usual mix of sarcasm and disdain expressed for Bieber's behavior, a sadly familiar spectacle of acting out and getting caught. It's been harder (though not nonexistent) to find those who worry about the kid (he's only 19!) and hope he gets himself some treatment.
There's an awkwardness in America to discussing and dealing with drug use, abuse and addiction issues, a remnant of our distant history of puritanism, a distinctly American sense of privacy and suggestions that difficult family matters be kept behind closed doors. We are at once a people who want uncomfortable matters swept quietly aside, yet fascinated with the intimate details of each other's lives. It doesn't help that popular culture both rewards and gives notoriety to bad behavior and acting out, our fascination with a life that dares to color outside the expected lines vexing our expectations that people stay within those lines at all times.
When a drunken celebrity - often a young woman - is caught on camera stumbling and slurring and causing a scene, it's the mix of fascination and revulsion that propels it, often, into our national consciousness. Less consideration is given to how we (or more to the point, the person doing it) got to that moment, or what happens next. We talk vaguely of "the downward spiral of child stars" as if its an interesting abstraction, and less the painful trajectory of actual people and their actual lives.
I've been thinking about this a lot in the couple of weeks since Bieber's arrest in Miami, about signs and warnings, and downward spirals. Those who follow celebrity gossip closely - or not even, since I really don't invest the time in it writing like this might suggest - could tell you that Bieber's slide has been widely seen and discussed, bubbling just beneath the kind of coverage that happens once an arrest is made, or the problem becomes impossible to hide. Like Lindsay Lohan, Bieber's early life has been carefully dressed for PR purposes as less chaotic and tumultuous than it might seem on closer examination, the kind of warning signs of someone at risk long before the fame and the easy access arrives.
Addicts tell surprisingly similar tales of pain, isolation and loneliness leading to use and abuse of substances. I've thought about that as well with the Bieber story, how sad can it be to have all that he seemingly has, yet to seem so alone, so fragile, so determined to anesthetize oneself?
But what also comes to mind is a grim reality that's less discussed, partly because, I suspect, Bieber's kind of success doesn't necessarily evoke sympathy, or a certain kind of respect. One can miss the kid's obvious talents, his appealing singing voice, the grace of his dancing, his natural ability as a performer. Some talents, once squandered, can be lamented and and missed. Whitney Houston, or Heath Ledger come to mind. But a Bieber, whose celebrity has trumped his talent... that lament can seem less obvious. But it's still there.
The sad reality is that Bieber's career has been the first, most obvious casualty of his behavior. Though he's toured successfully in the past few years, his status as a teen idol has been almost completely eclipsed by newcomers (One Direction, as well as newer teens like Austin Mahone and Cody Simpson) and established acts (Justin Timberlake, most obviously, has reasserted himself as the kind of heartthrob act Bieber aspires to be). His arrest occurred on the eve of the Grammys, where he was hardly missed, and in no contention for any award. The music world has already moved on, and so has much of the listening public. He hasn't charted a single, or released new material in some time. It's hard to see how he can collect himself, or his thoughts, for a project anytime soon.
That's where, to me, this story of Bieber intersects with Philip Seymour Hoffman. Amidst the lamentations for the loss of a prolific, widely admired actor, there's been the kind of immediate reassessment that happens with death, where the work takes on a fresh glow, and critics tend to emphasize the good and ignore the rest. Hoffman was indeed an actor of amazing range and depth, but he hadn't necessarily enjoyed anything like a career renaissance in recent years. His performances in The Hunger Games were not entirely well received, and underscored a kind of typecasting he endured as a smug, especially cold villain in big budget films. He had more opportunity to showcase his ranginess in smaller dramas, yet even there, it's hard to point to exceptional work in recent years.
Many will protest "but what about The Master?" No doubt his work was intense and skilled; but the film is chilly, dense, hard to love, and failed to find an audience. That's not a failure of the performers, per se, but it goes to a question that lingers about Hoffman, his addiction issues, and his admitted spiral into relapse. What choices might he have made had his addiction been less present, his sobriety more certain? Sober choices are smarter ones, more thought out, riskier yet also less dangerous, based upon more than a check, or a need to prove oneself. Onstage, his turn as Willy Loman was similarly curious, not a bad choice, necessarily, but an awfully big bite for an actor so young, in some ways still maturing and finding all of his potential. It's telling, that the reactions were so mixed, and so extreme; those who loved it, those who didn't have the heart to say it didn't really work.
It's hardest, I think, to have such a phenomenal talent, one that's expressed so young and so well and so naturally that it seems effortless. Hoffman's early roles have a sureness to them that really was breathtaking. Or think of Whitney Houston as Clive Davis found her, such an amazing raw talent for singing and interpreting a song just waiting to fly. And yes, Justin Bieber and his soaring young tenor, that need to be in front of an audience, that eagerness to please and to succeed. Judy Garland always spoke of the inner resources and energy it took just to be the Judy Garland audiences came to expect, capable of singing and performing others just couldn't touch. It should be easier, effortless, not isolating and difficult. And that's not really the case. It isn't easy. There's a lot of effort. And sometimes, it's easier to just fake it. Go onstage a little drunk. Phone it in. When you're that good, you can get away with it. At first, for a while, maybe before people notice, or suspect. For a while anyway. Especially when they don't look. Or pretend not to see.
We'll never know, now, what might have been, the actor Hoffman might have become, the actor he might have been in a more sober state. That loss is genuinely painful to contemplate, as is that question of what or who could have intervened, or knowing that no one could stop a path of self destruction unless he decided himself. If Hoffman's death is a cautionary tale, can someone get it to caution Justin Bieber, to help him see that there's no one to stop him self destructing except himself? I wish he would. I hope he does. The alternative remains too tragic. But not unthinkable, or unforseeable. If we choose to look.