Like many who saw him perform, I won’t soon forget Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. Not because I saw him on Broadway in a performance that drove me to tears; nor because I show one of his movies to my students at the university where I teach; but it’s because he was undeniably human, both on screen and now most certainly off.
Hoffman was the latest of the seemingly singular American phenomena of the high-profile celebrity death by accidental self-infliction. In his case, succumbing to the most ignoble of deaths. His body was found in early February in his New York City apartment, a syringe in his arm. It turns out he was a struggling addict and alcoholic who had only begun using again last year, after 23 years clean.
At age 46, he leaves behind not just three children and a longtime partner, but a lifetime’s worth of memorable roles in television, film and theater. He never went for showy, leading-man-megastar roles.
On hearing of his passing, many people might say, “Oh, the guy in the movie with Ben Stiller and Jennifer Aniston (Along Came Polly).” He didn’t play characters that audiences idolized; he played those that were memorable. Much of the time, he played characters that no one would want to be or to have come near their children. But he also played some larger-than-life figures such as the cult leader in The Master and the maverick CIA agent in Charlie Wilson’s War.
From loser-loners to men both strong and shattered, he did self-loathing, rage and coolness at the drop of a hat. Intense, intelligent and relentless in his pursuit of becoming the character he portrayed, he seemed wholly new, beyond the previous generation’s method actors. He starred with them all: Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, Tom Hanks and the list goes on.
His finest performance was the one I witnessed in New York in 2003, in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night. That afternoon, it should have been called Hoffman’s Long Day’s Journey into Night.
Despite the all-star cast that included Brian Dennehy and Vanessa Redgrave, it was Hoffman’s portrayal of Jamie Tyrone, the bitterly ironic, alcoholic older brother to the sickly poet son, which reached into the wings of the Plymouth Theater and didn’t let me go for more than three straight hours.
Every line, every gesture, was that of a young man revealing his demons authentically — the self-deprecating humor, the guilt, the shame, the grief. That night, Hoffman seemed to me the only one making something entirely new — not from the lines of a fusty play that takes place on a single evening in 1912, but from his own insight and sensitivity.
I knew nothing of Hoffman’s specific demons at the time. (I still don’t.) One thing was for certain. He had them. That’s because actors who are great, but who aren’t real addicts, fail to convincingly play them on stage or screen. I knew he had those demons because I had quit drinking myself for eleven years when I saw the play. I knew also because by the end of the show, when the sharp light of a late summer New York afternoon struck me in the eye, I wanted one of two things: a stiff scotch or to bawl my eyes out.
I thankfully chose the latter. My reaction was, in part, for the real human being Hoffman played. I had read playwright O’Neill’s biography: his older brother Jamie drank himself to death by age 45. (Hoffman was 46 when he died of a reported heroin overdose.) But my tears were for Hoffman, too. What he grappled with was so honest and true and exhaustingly painful that there seemed no right response other than to applaud for ten straight minutes afterward, my eyes watery. I remember turning to my wife. How can he sleep at night? I asked. The performance would have sapped the life out of an actor twice as experienced.
I wonder now whether the tears were premonitory – for the demons that came barreling into my own life within a month after the play. My baby sister – an artist, age 35, mother of two young children – died in an automobile accident on the California coast. When I heard that news, I wanted a drink more than I ever had before. Instead, I bawled, just like after I saw Hoffman’s performance. But even harder.
I lived. Mr. Hoffman died. So it goes with the afflicted.
In the aftermath of his passing, the media chorus rewrites his story, calling him “selfish”, among other things. Of course he was. Most people are; addicts are notoriously worse.
It appears Hoffman stayed clean for years before recently turning to painkillers, then to heroin, after which he immediately entered rehab. He went back to a Twelve Step recovery program, but then began drinking. He showed up for his kids, though his relationship with his partner was strained. He had a new lease on life, but he was ashamed he couldn’t stay clean. The speculation was endless – from Hollywood to psychologists to addicts themselves. Even EMTs who bring heroin users back to life with an effective overdose reversal medication jumped on board. One former EMT posted a response to this very article posted on the Newsworks.org website:
“I won’t forget the countless times doing CPR on these wasted human beings who [overdosed] in their rundown apartments or woke up after the medic pushed [the overdose reversal medication] into them when they were in cardiac arrest,” the person wrote. “And [the addicts] were ticked off since their high was just taken away … Tell me again how we are suppose to have sympathy for these pieces of trash that make poor decisions. We are supposed to feel sorry for them?”
Why is it that addicts and alcoholics are so misunderstood? We still blame the victim. It’s been nearly 80 years since Bill Wilson and Dr. Robert Smith founded Alcoholics Anonymous, the organization that single-handedly changed the progression of alcoholism and addiction for millions. Science continues to advance our understanding of addiction and the brain. Just like other fatal maladies, say cancer, there’s no cure; and it makes no sense when someone dies of the disease. When someone is tumor-free for five years and the cancer comes back, we don’t say, “It’s your fault. You brought this on. You didn’t take enough chemotherapy. By the way, how’s your marriage? Maybe that has something to do with your cancer coming back.” Or to the person with heart disease, “That hamburger you ate killed you.”
Answering the question of why one addict relapses and another doesn’t is too complex for addicts themselves and certainly for everyone else. The good news is that Hoffman’s passing has unleashed a national conversation on such issues: the return of heroin to most large American cities, suburbs and small towns; a front page New York Times article about deaths in rural Wisconsin; Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin’s January speech in which he focused solely upon addiction. And now there’s the U.S. Attorney General weighing in on what he calls an “urgent and growing public health crisis”. Eric Holder called for first responders to carry the overdose reversal medication, noting that drug deaths across the country are up nearly 50 percent and seizures of heroin on the southwestern border are up 320 percent.
Consumers are crossing over from prescription painkillers to the less costly heroin at alarming rates. And they are not just the young so much as a new group – suburban 45-to 54-year olds. Even more dangerous are the painkillers laced into heroin that are 100 times more powerful than morphine.
Beyond the issues Hoffman’s death raises, what remains for me is his work.
Every semester at the school where I teach, my students read In Cold Blood, the 1966 book that altered American literary culture and made and then unmade its writer, Truman Capote. Unlike Hoffman, Capote spiraled for years into a shamelessly, self-embarrassing shell of his former self and died an alcoholic and prescription drug addict in 1984.
Then I show the class the film, Capote. My students express surprise at hearing Capote’s voice as portrayed by Hoffman. He didn’t really talk that way, they tell me. By the end, they are won over by his Oscar-winning performance. In the movie he says something like, “When I think of how good my book is going to be, I can’t breathe.”
Now that Philip Seymour Hoffman has left us so suddenly, when I think of how good his acting actually was, I can’t breathe either.
Michael Carolan lives in western Massachusetts with his wife and two children. He teaches writing and literature at Clark University and taught the course, The Thirsty Muse: Alcohol and Madness in Film and Literature, at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is also writing his first novel. His website is michaelcharlescarolan.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.