Since They Went Away – The contrasting careers of Shirley Temple and Phillip Seymour Hoffman

hoffmanBy Daniel Gelman

I liked Phillip Seymour Hoffman. There was something endearing about him, despite his somewhat dubious contribution to the quality of American entertainment. In addition to some of his serious stage work and memorable film roles, he played a number of sketchy characters with questionable moral values.

These included: a pedophiliac priest, a drag queen, a porno film production assistant, a phone sex operator, a sexual crank caller, a drug-addled sexual miscreant in a profane play with Marxist overtones, and a substance abusing gay writer covering a mass murder.

When I finish viewing any of those works, I tend to feel worse about life and the world, and then I want to take a shower. Hoffman died alone with a heroin needle in his arm. I’m not sure what would prompt an educated person to accept an invitation to try heroin in the first place. If you have an addictive personality, that’s all the more reason to “just say no.” I would probably say, “Thanks for the generous offer, but I think I’ll pass.”

shirley-temple-young__140211120641Few public figures have made me happier to be alive than Shirley Temple Black. When I watch her perform, I’m filled with hope and possibility. Everything is right with the world, because that tiny bundle of joy says it is. The bountiful optimism of her characters rendered great spiritual value to a beaten depression-era nation just when we needed it most.

Many may not remember her as a teen actress. In the poignant Since You Went Away (1944), she played the sensible daughter in a family missing their father during World War II. She got out of the business in time to leave us with our memory of her eternal youth. Then she dedicated the rest of her life to public service as a diplomat and gracious ambassador of a less jaded Hollywood.

As I reflect on the recent passing of these two talented stars, I’m drawn to the contrast of their time periods and their association with the evolving “culture war” in this country. There were movies in Temple’s time that portrayed the darker side of life, but they left something to the imagination. In Hoffman’s time, it was a cinematic sin to leave anything to the imagination.

Temple was a child actor and Hoffman was not. She can’t take credit for portraying herself as a cute little girl, but we’re better off for her having been who she was. Hoffman took his roles voluntarily. Do I want to return to Temple’s time period and block out the dark realities that so many of Hoffman’s roles revealed? No. I prefer something in between that time and this one.

I was also drawn to the difference in their approaches to life. Hoffman lived unmarried with the mother of his children and signed his life over to drugs and self-indulgence. Black was married to her second husband for over 50 years. Her adult life was dedicated to national service.

But we don’t know what kind of father, son, friend, or neighbor Hoffman was, and we lose nothing by giving him the benefit of the doubt. I will assume that he was a talented young man who liked to play edgy characters, was a product of his time, and most likely adored his family as much as we all do ours.

There was a time not so long ago when we could view endless broadcasts of classic films on Los Angeles T.V. channels here in Ventura County. Today young folks have very little exposure to these movies, with the exception of a cable channel or two. As parents and mentors we can make an effort to share Shirley Temple, Grace Kelly, John Wayne, and Sidney Poitier if we see the value in developing our kids’ historical perspective. Right now they only know Hoffman’s world, not Temple’s.

I choose to remember Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the adorable misfit boyfriend in Next Stop Wonderland (1998). In this examination of dating life in Boston he played a guy who was dedicated to causes and kept leaving his poor girlfriend to pursue them. Each time he did, he would make a passionate and boyish video tape explaining systematically why he had to leave to save the world. You have to see it to appreciate it, but that’s the guy whom I will miss. May they both rest in peace.

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Daniel Gelman has been a Reporter/Writer for several years, specializing in News, Business, Feature, and Op-Ed.

 

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