We’ve Seen This Movie Before: Trying to Make Sense of Philip Seymour Hoffman

The death of Philip Seymour Hoffman hurts more than the typical "gone too soon" tragedy because we are being robbed of an artist performing at the height of his considerable powers.

This isn’t quite in the day John Lennon died territory, but I’ll never forget where I was and what I was doing.

Sitting at home, Super Bowl shopping complete, biding my time for the big game. Someone posted something about Philip Seymour Hoffman dying on Facebook. No chance, I thought. No way, I hoped. Then another update, and another. This being 2014, I did what any sensible person would do: I Googled it. Sure enough, the first item that popped up had the wonderful words “hoax”. Since this was not the first time a celebrity had prematurely been declared dead, I took solace. But then another update, with a link to an actual news organizations appeared. Then another. And within a few minutes, my entire feed was buzzing with the news. It was true. It happened.

The man I consider the best actor of his generation (and I’m certainly not alone), dead aged 46. Of a heroin overdose. Needle found sticking in his arm.

No chance. No way.

Method acting taken to its illogical extreme? Nope, he was a once-recovered addict, and as the stories began pouring out, it was revealed that he’d relapsed and had been struggling these last months with this monster that had moved into his life. That’s how it happens with addiction: it knocks on the door, or maybe it’s a case of breaking and entering. Once it gets inside it’s a hell of a lot harder to extricate it than it ever was to seek it. It is an equal opportunity assailant, going after the vital organs (the brain, the heart) and if or when its appetite for death becomes more powerful than the body’s ability to tolerate, people are found face-down on beds, curled up in alleys, or sitting in a bathroom with a needle in their arms. They become clichés in the sense that famous people dying of ostensibly self-inflicted wounds are clichés: we’ve seen this movie before.

And before I talk about his work, and what we’ve lost, I’d like to personalize this a bit. I don’t know about you, but for me Americans have been perfecting a perverse sort of cognitive dissonance that has reached a boiling point. On one hand, we are utterly obsessed with celebrity and, increasingly, the fantasy that we might become famous, if only for a moment. As such, no shame, family secret or personal foible is off limits as we pursue this ridiculous and empty charade. On the other hand, we are able to shrug off another person’s misfortune like the most priggish priest, the most sadistic shrink: Americans are experts at judging and lambasting the weakness of others. My Facebook feed has been polluted with asinine comments about “selfishness”, “junkies” and “losers”. Perhaps you’ve seen similar, and worse, sentiment.

Here’s the logic these folks appear to be following: anyone who is rich and famous, who is well-regarded, and who has a family (!) is acting at the height (or is that the depth?) of self-absorbed evil to piss it all away. Just to get high. As usual, the best retort for such cocksure and half-assed sanctimony is to turn it on its head: how badly must a person be struggling to know they stand to piss away their fame, security and family (!) in order to inject bad medicine for a sickness that can never cure itself? Similar rationale tends to apply to suicides: no moral person could ever do something that would hurt their loved ones so much. Oh yeah? How about this: no person who was not already drowning in the dark waters of doubt, fear and helplessness could, in their right mind, do something, to themselves, that can never be undone? Hope is not something you can purchase with a paycheck or have breathed into your body like a reverse exorcism: if there is one thing folks who consistently hurt themselves have in common, a lack of perspective, the absence of hope.

(Incidentally, lest you think I’m content to wax unconvincingly on a topic of which I admittedly — and luckily — have no intimate experience, I’m happy to pass the mic to the incomparable Russell Brand who, last year, wrote eloquently, as usual, about his own struggles:

It is difficult to feel sympathy for these people. It is difficult to regard some bawdy drunk and see them as sick and powerless. It is difficult to suffer the selfishness of a drug addict who will lie to you and steal from you and forgive them and offer them help. Can there be any other disease that renders its victims so unappealing?)

All of which is to say, if there is one thing plaguing our society right now, it’s a decided and very soulless lack of empathy. We watch reality TV shows about slick business types (often born on third base) browbeating their inferiors about what it takes to get to the top. And we make these imbeciles even richer; we envy and admire them. And we shrug our shoulders as families on food stamps get their benefits cut, as people out of work are called lazy (or worse) because, obviously if they wanted to work, they could find a job. We say ill-informed, offensive things like “minimum wage jobs are not designed for people with families”. (Oh really? And: even if that were true, doesn’t that make it all the more appalling so many people with families are obliged to work them? Or that the minimum wage has not even come close to keeping pace with the cost of living during decades where we’ve seen the wealthiest one percent assume an ever-obscene portion of the nation’s wealth?)

All of that said, I believe it’s possible, and acceptable, to wish we devoted more time, energy and media coverage to the anonymous, often impoverished people who succumb to addiction, while also lamenting the untimely loss of a “famous” person. And in this instance, it hurts more than the typical “gone too soon” tragedy because we are collectively being robbed of an artist performing at the height of his considerable powers. We will have no more opportunities to watch him share his gift, effective immediately.

The reason this one hurts so acutely, on a purely artistic level, is because few people could convincingly argue that Hoffman is not among the most gifted, if not the most gifted and accomplished actor of his generation. Typically, simple consensus makes me suspicious; a result of groupthink or a media-driven narrative (with big pockets and PR firms doing what they do best: selling product to make money, manufacturing consent by any means necessary). With Hoffman, the verdict came in over a decade — if not longer — ago: he is perhaps the best at what he does, and the range of work coupled with an admirable productivity make a compelling case that is likely to accrue momentum in subsequent years.

Pretty simple, but still unassailable evidence of mastery: an actor who can consistently make you loathe him, pity him or love him — sometimes in the same movie — is a rare breed. Quick: think of how many excellent, A-list actors are actually capable of making you cheer for them in one role and feel repulsed by them in another? While playing creepy, despicable dudes was, in some ways, Hoffman’s calling card, even in the roles where he was unctuous or obsequious (think his early work in Scent of a Woman for the former and his master turn in The Big Lebowski for the latter), and being the heavy, in many senses of the word, called for skills he was ideally suited to deploy (think Punch-Drunk Love or the blustery Lester Bangs from Almost Famous), he was perhaps most convincing as the vulnerable outsider (Magnolia) or the disconnected non-content (The Savages).

It’s one thing to play an outsider; it’s easy for a luminous actor to channel alienation or estrangement. But it is considerably more challenging to depict the type of turmoil and inner-anguish that are often best conveyed only in novels. As such, two of his big roles (Capote and Doubt) were near-perfect vehicles for a man who could realistically portray a person trying to convince others — and himself — that he is someone else.

For me, the ultimate test of what sets the very-good or even the great apart from the greatest, is the how many question. If an actor inhabits a role to the extent that not only can’t you imagine anyone else playing the part, but can imagine the ways the movie would suffer without their involvement, this would seem a fair and accurate criteria for genius. And while his work in Boogie Nights and The Master might, and perhaps should, be among the first mentioned (and I’ll resist saying more since virtually every other tribute has, understandably, discussed those two roles in some detail), for me it’s two lesser-known films that epitomize movies that simply would not have worked without Hoffman’s involvement.

Here’s a clip from the significantly overlooked, near masterpiece, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead:

Merits of the actual film aside, is choosing this role (and this scene!) too easy by half? Not really. And not because of the facile (although, perhaps not so much) connection with his death; it’s not merely that his character is seeking a state of listless oblivion via chemicals, it’s the desolation and lack of connection, the slow boiling debasement. His stock in trade was playing men on the run, from themselves. In repeated viewings, I never cease to be struck by the physical intensity and commitment this role required (and/or Hoffman invested in it). It borders on painful at times, and there are moments throughout where it appears Hoffman is about to have a heart attack right on the screen. Yes, that is acting, but it’s also…being. The character is deeply flawed, mostly despicable; he’s a bully, a liar and a coward. And yet, throughout the film (in part because of the excellent script and the direction, Lumet’s final film) you not only find yourself feeling pity for him, you aren’t conned into it (by the writing, by the acting), you see the sum total of history (his story), the decisions and frailties that make him the beast he has become. Simply put, I can’t think of a recent role that was able to show and tell, without words, exactly what is driving a character’s actions. It seems facile, maybe even trite, but it was during the first time I saw this film when I actually worried a bit about Hoffman’s health: how could any actor keep up this type of self-abuse in the service of art?

The other role, which I’d be willing to wager is going to assume added import in the years to come, is his tour-de-force performance in Synecdoche, New York. I think the role was so expansive, and he was so comparatively young when he played it, plus the fact that it’s more than slightly outside the box, (it tends to make Being John Malkovich, another Charlie Kaufman work, appear almost straightforward and commonplace by comparison), damned it to less-than-stellar box office results, as if that ever matters in the long view.

Certainly many fine actors have used skills, make-up and exceptional directing to play characters that age over the course of a film. But I can think of few, if any examples of a role wherein you see the character age physically as well as emotionally, wearing the passage of time like a weight; a weight that is not the addition of flesh so much as the subtraction of vitality, eating itself from the inside-out. By the latter stages of the film Caden Cotard is indeed a bloated, aged wreck, but Hoffman somehow makes it appear that even as he slows down, the agony (physical, metaphysical) within him has accelerated, ravaging him mentally as well as physically. It eventually becomes apparent it has assumed an ever-larger portion of his being, and he carries this burden like Sysyphus with his stone, forever looking up at a hill he can never crest.

This condition is a metaphor for Cotard’s life, sure. It manages to be emblematic of what every human struggles with: how to define ourselves, how to understand each other, how to make sense of existence. It also suggests a struggle that Hoffman was unable to win in his own life. It seems safe to assume it was this discontent, this inordinate sensitivity and subsequent commitment to articulating the story he couldn’t quite tell that led to the roles we will never forget. It is also, perhaps, the secret to what stalked Philip Seymour Hoffman, the guy with all the money, all the accolades, every reason to live. The silver lining, aesthetically speaking, reaffirms the essence of so much art: his pain is our gain.

We’ve seen this movie before. But we won’t see more movies from this actor and that, above all, is why it hurts so much.