(First published in Thought Catalog February 27, 2014)
Now we know what it took to be Phillip Seymour Hoffman.
We examine a celebrity entertainer’s death. These are deaths like no other.
They are, after all, playing parts.
It’s said great actors ‘put everything’ into their roles. He was no exception.
Revered for his ability to portray ‘anyone’, he struggled with showing the world himself. Admired for his immersive, meticulous preparation, he had not yet found himself when the curtain dropped.
51 movies in 23 years. In later years, he began to pile them on, leaving a trail of films like the astounding number of heroin packets and needles found at his death-scene, so many discarded in plain sight. He filmed like he shot up, looking for a better, more enduring high. It kept not coming.
More movies. More scores.
Some of his recent roles play uncomfortably untransformative. His ‘Robert’ in ‘A Late Quartet’ might just as well have been phoned in, saving him a walk to the studio.
A year before, he reprised Willy Loman on Broadway, in the play he’d done at Fairport High, which first won him notice. An odd choice so early in his stellar orbit, a community theater staple that was quaint and plebian when that other Hoffman did it, a piece that someone of his stature would only be expected to visit maybe in a retrospective, a few decades hence. On a dare. From his kids. I think he was grasping for a meaning in his troubled arc, and thought Miller’s well-thumbed script a safe choice to connect with some quieter time, to fill some empty lines in a resume that his public, or his managers, or just someone might walk up to him on the set of his next movie, and cold-cock him with. The well-circulated photo of his curtain-call opening night shows a glint of mischief in his Cheshire cat smile. Death of a Salesman, indeed.
First acclaimed for his role as the brooding ‘Scotty J.’ in ‘Boogie Nights’, it was written then that ‘the camera loves him’.
Then, with ‘Capote’, came fame and adulation. Mindless, as it usually is. But not without a cruel, inexplicable assignation by a conspiracy, surely, of the pundits and critics of the day. Hollywood anointed its newest King of the Method. With one problem. The King’s clothing was of a character actor’s cloth.
But the camera loved him.
In ‘Mission Impossible III’, the villain Owen Davian famously unzips his skin, and out comes Tom Cruise. I don’t think the Hoffman-skin in that movie was from the Paramount’s Prop Department. It came from his own closet.
Phillip Hoffman’s reiterative wardrobe was not at all like Einstein’s sextet of six identical blue suits, which spared the genius having to think about what to wear each day. No, this trousseau of Hoffman-skins insisted itself upon him. It was all the clothing he had in the world.
Some of us come home from work and get to unzip our office or career selves and be fathers or friends or lovers or pet-owners or backyard gardeners.
With each skin he unzipped, another just like it appeared.
And more scripts came along, with less hope on the last page of each.
Each needle prick was a cue for the lines that he’d memorized, though all had a similar meaning and, in the end, melted together in a Fantasiaesque march of cook-spoons, the latest scripts piled on his desk bookmarked with collections of ATM receipts.
He put ‘everything’ into his roles. We said so.
The priest who’d delivered the homily as his funeral said PSH was ‘down to earth’, and had no ‘airs’.
Maybe he should have had some ‘airs’. As Jim Carrey said on hearing the news, “For the most sensitive among us the noise can be too much”, offering too late the virtues of the thicker skin. Which he could have unzipped just like the rest of us, and relaxed to Family Guy reruns, or like the very few of us that he was, hopped his jet for the Leewards. Anything but hang around alone with that nagging doubt, held at bay with just a few turns of surgical tube.
‘Doubt’, as his Father Flynn character said in the movie of that name, ‘can be a bond as powerful as certainty.’
A death by drugs is a suicide, but worse. It’s not simply ‘My life is no longer worth living,’ and, generally, some expression of contrition. Rather, ‘The bliss I get from this is worth the chance of leaving this life, and you.” Its legacy is survivor’s guilt on steroids.
He leaves his children and companion with the unspeakable endowment that the morning he was to see them, he put his life on the line to shoot up. He imagined, probably, that he would wrap his high around his head like his scarf and wander on through the streets that winter’s morning, sure none the wiser that he’d dosed. And kiss his kids.
But if he were straight that day, and walked those few blocks to his family in Greenwich Village with his eyes squeezed shut, and stepped off the curb into the path of a city bus, we’d call this last act in his play ‘reckless’.