Philip Seymour Hoffman: Gifted, Addicted and Mortal

Philip Seymour Hoffman - self-reflective

It was a small part in The Big Lebowski, the unctuous personal assistant who ushers the Dude into the august presence of the great phony, Mr. Lebowski; but the way Philip Seymour Hoffman, the consummate actor, perhaps the best of his generation, bowed his head and raised his arm in a stylized directive to indicate that the Dude should “come along this way,” was something quite special. The little gesture contained, capsulized and expressed his knowing or innocent complicity in pumping the froth of the old man’s sententious fraud.

It was a bigger part in Boogie Nights. He was the overweight production tech, the kind of guy who knows he is a loser, but through the good graces of others, is allowed to hang-out, to remain in the presence of those who are better looking, more confident, self-assured. He carries on little conversations with himself, often repeating or responding to something he’s just heard or anticipated, all on a one-second delay, as if to prove to himself and the universe that he’s an integral part of the greater whole. He wants to stand with the winners from whom he hopes to draw some of their victory and power. Failing that he hopes that proximity might afford him a status he could otherwise not obtain on his own.

It is a heartbreaking performance, with the trembling of the school-boy who calls the girl and hangs up before pressing the last number, when he gathers up his courage and makes a doomed move on an enhanced Mark Wahlberg. Dirk the porn star repulses the advance and the crying and wails of self-recrimination that follow rise up from a well of self-loathing resident within the character’s gut. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s talent paralyzes the audience with the kind of empathy that feels like a crucifixion.

In Magnolia he is the male nurse who sits by Jason Robard’s bed, noodling a crossword puzzle as the old guy swears and complains and blames himself for the many sins he has committed in a successful though troubled life. The male nurse, dressed in white and pale blue, with his blonde hair, his weight and intimations that somewhere within the sensitive man-child of indeterminate sexuality there is a grown man, a real man, an authentic man with the physical strength of a middle linebacker and the moral strength of a good man, is a wonder. He gives as good as he gets. It is the good-natured ribbing of intimates, the sometimes difficult dialogue between men who fear they might care too much, who might reveal too much of themselves. Throughout the male nurse communicates a simple humanity, decent, tolerant and kind, the best of what it means to be merely human. He keeps vigil as the old man takes the medication that will ease his passing. He cleans and tidies the place. He mourns the death of a patient who’d become his friend.

Philip Seymour Hoffman died on Sunday. He died with a needle in his arm and an apartment filled with packets of heroin. He died from an addiction, his abuse of a substance that hides its toxicity and lethal nature under cover of an unnatural comfort that offers brief relief before it morphs into the smug face of naked, unalloyed, unremitting need.

Jim Carry tweeted about sensitivity and how, perhaps, the most sensitive among us, the most talented, the most special can succumb to the relief of an anesthetic that also destroys. The well-meaning and sad tweet falls under the general heading of sympathy for the tortured Romantic, the artist who’s been set apart by reason of his gifts and who must contend with the inner flame that enlivens and tortures him to greater heights.

Maybe there is something in it – the whole “tortured-artist” thing. Americans loved Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner, James Dean, Elvis, Judy Garland, Montgomery Clift, Kurt Cobain, Michael Jackson and others, all plagued by various ailments and addictions. Studies of highly talented people have shown that those in the arts appear to suffer in greater numbers from depression, bi-polar conditions, substance abuse and suicide.

Yet, there have been many artists who were well adjusted, relatively happy and content with their lots in life. One does not often read about the happy and contented part because happy and contented only sells when it comes at the end of a journey through hell. (Except for his genius, what little word there is of Shakespeare says that he was a pretty ordinary guy. Except for his genius, Bach was a well-adjusted family man with about three hundred kids. Except for his genius Pissarro was thought to be the kindest man in Paris.)

No. Addiction is not a designer disease, relegated to the rarefied air of the elect. There are too many who have not been touched by the fire of the gods, who have not been endowed with extraordinary gifts, who have also sought some relief or escape from the rigors of life. Unfortunately, they have sought that relief by means of various drugs that compel their ongoing ingestion or inhalation.

Addiction is general. It is as much a part of the human condition as waking, eating, breeding and sleeping. It is no more an anomaly than red hair, blue eyes, a bobbed nose, growing old, the mumps, measles or chicken pox. It’s in the genes. It’s in the bone, and only the overwrought niceties of a 19th century stigma still relegates it to the back room where nice society once hid their defective relatives.

Addiction is also a force more powerful than the strongest will, a mysterious, compelling and cunning dark hole present within the substrata of an apparently healthy life. It defies everything from reason to self-interest. It can make liars of honest people and monsters of the most sensitive. It is a disease, but has not been wholly accepted as such, because of misconceptions regarding one’s free will, the over-estimation of the power of one’s free will, and the loss of that freedom when the addict is lost in the grip of forces greater than anything he or she can muster to protect themselves.

Humans are only human, after all. Mixed bags. For the most part they are okay, even when things are not okay. But they are not perfect, super, immortal, wholly self-reliant or in charge of forces greater than themselves. The healthy, proud ubermensch of the airwaves, who have been allowed too often to set the illusive markers that measure the range of “normal,” have also defined, perhaps unintentionally, what it means to be fully human in an America that has become epitomized by downward drift.

By means of television, ads, movies, books, sports, sermons, promoting “self-help,” “self-betterment,” “heroism,” “inspiration,” and the acquisition of “power, success, wealth and celebrity,” those who hold themselves out as having arrived urge the other 98 percent. The rest of the half-baked ruck, to pick themselves up by the bootstraps and to join the kind of “human race” where immortality might be an achievable goal. In this they seduce the aspirant to buy their wares, their secrets, their message, their means to relief, their anesthetics. In this they take the money and leave the person behind with a box of CD’s, a workbook, a DVD, some over-priced vitamins, and the unspoken indictment of not being fully human. In this they separate and sub-divide common humanity into those who have made it and those who must struggle just to survive their short, cruel and brutish lives.  In this, knowingly or not, they convey an untruth and  do a disservice to all, including themselves, as exhortations to achieve too often ignore certain inescapable and self-evident truths: All men are mortal; mortality implies vulnerability, and vulnerabilities invite the protections afforded by certain limitations.

That Hoffman was an addict is a fact. That Hoffman should have known better, done better, stayed with the program, sought help, exerted more will power are opinions that only become facts when expressed in the alternate universe where ghosts speak only in the subjunctive mode.

Why did Philip Seymour Hoffman die? Who  knows? It is like asking “Why are there so many people on this bus?” The proximate answers are discernible, if not always easy. (Because too many people were waiting at the bus stop. Because he injected himself with a lethal dose of heroin…) But the real cause of any effect is neither proximate nor even knowable. A million choices made by a million people over an indeterminate period of time precede the simple act of one person placing one foot in front of the other.

So, why did he die? Perhaps because all humans are mortal, because he was human, because he was mortal.

There is a sadness in this, for those who knew Philip Seymour Hoffman, for those who loved him, liked him, admired him, for those who watched him on the big screen, for those who respect quality, excellence, beauty, for those who’ve been touched by the hollow ache of life’s random mysteries or less than random terribleness.

There is a sadness in this as persistent as the difficult winter that covers with snow the building, the street and the neighborhood where he lived.

An Editorial By Michael Hogan



New York Post

NY Daily News





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