Once again, a celebrity has died before his time because of his excesses. And once again, the usual finger-wagging has been played out in the media. There’s a predictable, sad trajectory in all these stories:
The news of the death. The shock among the fans and media. The discovery of the drug or drugs of choice. The narrative of the final hours and moments. The tsk tsks. The He Had It All And Blew It Commentary.
Then the funeral.
Philip Seymour Hoffman was someone who was an obvious genius, not some public relations machine Hollywood cut-out. This makes it harder to comprehend. NYU acting school, Broadway, an Oscar in 2006 for perhaps the most amazing portrayal I’ve ever seen, and his brilliant self-analyses of what he does and who he is.
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Philip Seymour Hoffman in “The Addict Next Door.” Who knew, right? He was such a great guy. Three cute kids, a very accomplished partner, and a fantastic, enviable career in a business that eats people alive. The neighbors loved him. No late-night scenes, just a guy who lived in the neighborhood, frequenting the local spots, picking up his kids at school, dressed like a regular person. Cordial, accessible, polite, and one of the leading actors of his generation. Maybe the leading actor of his generation.
With a needle hanging out of his arm. With a burned spoon in the sink. With 70 bags of heroin in his apartment. Sitting in a bathroom next to a toilet in a t-shirt and shorts.
Why? Why does this keep happening?
It happens because Philip Seymour Hoffman had to get that creative energy from someplace. And that someplace, as many creative people know, is dark. Very, very dark. So did John Belushi. So did Chris Farley. So did Marilyn Monroe.
Sometimes, we cannot see their dark place.
They may have been raised in a loving family, with great siblings, attended great schools, had many friends, achieved amazing, even monumental things, lacked for no material possession, and there it still is:
The pain. The pain in the dark place.
I know many talented, creative people. Some use drugs, some drink, some smoke, some have off-the-charts sexual passions, but most of the really talented people have some dark place. It could be rage. It could be neglect. It could be shame. It could be an unshareable secret. But there is something in that dark place that all the success, accolades, kudos, and money cannot mask, cannot extinguish, cannot mitigate.
Pain has an usual ability to remain rooted, not like a plant. You can eventually unearth a plant and move it. The pain that Philip Seymour Hoffman had was probably better described as a radiating oil spill. It goes everywhere, and you can spend your entire life mopping up the tar balls and the goo and the stench, and you can still smell it. It’s there. Pieces turn up in the most unlikely venues, and it reminds you that you simply cannot clean it up completely.
It doesn’t matter what caused Philip Seymour Hoffman’s pain. Nor does it really make any sort of difference whether they apprehend the people who sold him the heroin. They will find them, of course. And they are bad people who do that, and they should be prosecuted.
But Philip Seymour Hoffman just would have found some other way to mitigate his unknowable pain. The greatest acting that Philip Seymour Hoffman ever did in his entire career was to be the functioning actor, father, lover, and friend Philip Seymour Hoffman. For that would have required a great deal of effort. Whatever he pulled out for his role as Truman Capote, he had to do ten times that to go on as a recovered Philip Seymour Hoffman. And he did.
For 23 years.
Sober. No booze. No drugs.
And something, some horrible something, made Philip Seymour Hoffman go back to mitigating his pain. No one knows what it was. No one will know. It was probably a lot of things that 46 year old men go through: I am aging. I may not be as good as I think I am. My partner isn’t what I want or this career or neighborhood or car wasn’t what I thought it all would be.
It’s something else.
And we don’t know what it is, and Philip Seymour Hoffman is now not here to articulate his pain.
Tragic. But we know it was there.
So when you think about this man, this great actor, know that his acting was just that: an act. For you, an audience. He dropped the curtain, probably by accident. No bows. No encore. But do not, please, condemn him. His outer life, fueled by his inner pain, was your entertainment. That was gift to you and a relief to him. He was just a beautiful, flawed man who treated people decently and excelled at his craft.