The shocking death of Philip Seymour Hoffman of a drug overdose has understandably sent many scrambling to make sense of yet another artist falling to addiction. Esquire Magazine’s Tom Junod has waded into treacherous waters in his attempt at tribute to this most talented actor. The result is a shock to the system that I can’t imagine would bring anything but pain to his long-time girlfriend, three children or others who struggle with drug or alcohol addiction.
Junot was not content to applaud the skill with which Mr. Hoffman illuminated some of our darkest behaviors. Instead, he aimed for cool and edgy at the expense of this tragedy:
“I had two contradictory but complementary responses to the news that Philip Seymour Hoffman had died of a drug overdose at the suddenly tender age of 46 — two responses, that is, beyond how terrible and damn, he was great.
The first was that there was no way Hoffman had died with a syringe still in his arm — no way that an actor who brought such finicky dignity to his portrayal of the most desperate characters had permitted himself to die so ruthlessly unmasked.
The second was that of course he had died in such a sordid manner — how else was Philip Seymour Hoffman supposed to die? There was no actor, in our time, who more ably suggested that each of us is the sum of our secrets…no actor who better let us know what he knew, which is that when each of us returns alone to our room, all bets are off.
The only way that Philip Seymour Hoffman could have died in a manner more consistent with the characters he created would have been if he had died by auto-erotic asphyxiation.”
To equate Mr. Hoffman’s ability to plumb the depths of complex and sometimes morally reprehensible characters with the manner in which he died and find poetry in that is as insensitive as it is tasteless. This is also a romantic, pretentious conceit not unlike some film noir plot wherein a man smoking-cigarettes-in-the-back-of-a-dark-club-downing-scotch-after-scotch suffers for his art.
Junod’s is the attitude of someone on the outside looking in, perpetuating a stereotype that artists are, by virtue of their chosen careers, somehow twisted. Junod then opined:
“Would Matt Damon ever be found dead, with a syringe still hanging from his arm? Would George Clooney essentially eat himself to death? No, for the simple fact they both have way too much to lose.”
I would argue Mr. Hoffman’s three children were way too much for him to lose.
Junod intimates that Damon and Clooney play it safe in their performances or choice of roles and therefore would never be possessed by the kind of demons that have overcome the likes of Hoffman, James Gandolfini or Heath Ledger.
Someone should talk to Robert DeNiro about that one. Ever seen “Taxi Driver”? I believe Mr. DeNiro just turned 70 and he appears to be thriving.
Addiction to drugs and alcohol is not a mandatory byproduct of artistry and to offer a theory to the contrary makes the struggles of Mr. Hoffman or others, whether in show business or out, into a party joke. There is no poetry in Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death and no “aha” moment that can justifiably equate his great performances with the manner in which he died.
Mr. Junod continues his romance with the lurid by stating:
“…[W]e pay to look at men who look like us only when they convince us that that they live in psychic spaces that we could never endure…”
That’s why they call it acting.
Having been in this business for 30 years, I can promise there are brilliant actors and writers who are able to dig deep in their work yet still have a home, a family and maintain their emotional health. By Junod’s logic, any actor playing a hooker or serial killer must live in those zones, too.
It is an unfortunate irony that artists needing vulnerability to well execute their craft inhabit a business littered with enough rejection to require the hide of a rhinoceros. Yet that struggle is no more painful than someone investing their life savings and 20 years of blood and sweat in a business only to watch it go belly up.
There are men and women in all walks of life who have long suffered through depression and alcohol or drug addiction. Their lack of notoriety ensures we know nothing of them, unlike the feeding frenzy surrounding the death of a famous casualty of the same disease.
We would do well to spend more time understanding the causes of addiction, or how to intervene, offering support and assistance rather than perpetuating a stereotype and in some untoward way, glamourizing the horrid, untimely death of a gifted person.
I cannot pretend to understand Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death or what trigger drove him to abandon his 23 years of sobriety. Yet it would be glib to assume that whatever hole inside him that could not otherwise be filled was driven by his art.
I am grateful for the wonderful contributions Mr. Hoffman made in his rich and courageous work as an actor. I can only hope that the shock of his untimely loss will wake others to reach out for help and a road to recovery.