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. 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 high-profile celebrity deaths by accidental self-infliction—in his case, the seediest 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: in just 20 years, more than 60 films and plays. He never went for showy, leading-man-megastar roles. He didn’t play characters whom audiences idolized. He played opposites, characters no one wanted to be or to have come near children.
From loser-loners to men both strong and shattered, he did self-loathing, rage, and coolness at the drop of a dime. Intense, intelligent, relentless in his pursuit of becoming the character he portrayed, he seemed wholly new, beyond the previous generation’s method actors.
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.
That’s because, despite its all-star cast, including Brian Dennehy and Vanessa Redgrave, it was Hoffman’s portrayal of Jamie Tyrone—the bitterly ironic, alcoholic older brother to the sickly poet son—that 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 deprecating humor, the guilt, the shame, the grief. Hoffman seemed to me the only one that night 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. (And 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 play them convincingly on stage or screen.
I knew he had them because I had quit drinking myself for 11 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 myself or to bawl my eyes out.
I thankfully chose the latter. My reaction was, in part, to the real human being Hoffman played. I had read playwright O’Neill’s biography: his older brother Jamie drank himself to death at age 45. (Hoffman was 46 when he died.) 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 10 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 as I did after I saw Hoffman’s performance. But even harder.
I lived. 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 he stayed clean for years before turning recently to painkillers, then to heroin, after which he immediately entered rehab. He went back to a 12-step recovery program, but then began drinking. He showed up for his kids, though his relationship with his partner was strained. He looked fine but strange outside an AA meeting in New York. He had a new lease on life; he was ashamed he couldn’t stay clean. The media speculate—this time, everyone from fellow Hollywood actors to addiction counselors to Emergency Medical Technicians who bring heroin overdosers back to life with Narcan, and addicts themselves. Which leaves me wondering why we bother speculating in the first place.
Just like other fatal maladies, say, cancer, there is no cure and it makes no sense. 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. When it comes to substance abuse, we still blame the victim.
Answering the question why one person relapses and another doesn’t is too complicated for addicts themselves and certainly everybody else. The good news may be that Hoffman’s passing has unleashed a national conversation on such issues: the epidemic return of heroin to most every large American city, a front page New York Times article about heroin deaths in a small Wisconsin town, the Vermont governor’s recent speech in which he focused solely upon addiction.
Peter Shumlin said in his State of the State speech that nearly twice as many people died in Vermont from heroin overdoses as the year before. Here in Massachusetts, deaths from drug overdoses have climbed 47 percent since 1999. The state ranks 32nd in annual drug overdose deaths, primarily from prescription drug abuse, according to a recent Massachusetts Health Council report, and the number of actual deaths in the state rose from 363 in 2000 to 642 in 2011.
Massachusetts isn’t alone: consumers across the country are crossing over from prescription painkillers to the less costly heroin, and not just the young so much as a new group: suburban 45- to 54-year-olds. And even more dangerous than heroin alone are painkillers 100 times more powerful than morphine.
Then there’s the question of the responsibility of the dealer for the user’s death (four of Hoffman’s alleged dealers were arrested soon after the overdose), and last but not least, the death of the so-called “greats” (musicians, actors, writers) by accidental overdose (Charlie Parker, Elvis, Heath Ledger).
Beyond the unsolvable issues Hoffman’s exit from this world raises, what remains for me is the work. Every semester at the school where I teach, my students read In Cold Blood, the 1966 book that altered American letters and made and then unmade its writer, Truman Capote. Unlike Hoffman, Capote spiraled for years into a shameless, self-embarrassing shell of his former self and died an alcoholic and prescription pill 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 Hoffman’s 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 and seemingly pointlessly, when I think of how good he 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. He is writing his first novel. His website is michaelcharlescarolan.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.