Musings on Contemporary Waffle
You are nominated three times for an Academy Award and win on the fourth nomination. You appear in 50 films and are considered one of the most profound actors of your generation. And you die of a heroin overdose at age 46.
Philip Seymour Hoffman’s tragic death made me feel overwhelmingly sad, even though I didn’t know the man and, honestly, don’t remember him in the movies that I had seen in which he appeared. I add that information as evidence of my own ignorance about modern-day filmmaking rather than as a comment in anyway meant to be disparaging about Mr. Hoffman’s abilities as an actor. The films that I refer to were also not starring vehicles, as was “Capote”, a film I saw after Mr. Hoffman left us, and a performance that I will surely not forget.
But my sadness about Mr. Hoffman’s death was more complicated than a reaction to an awfully untimely end to the life of a famous person. Though I didn’t know him, I couldn’t help having the feeling that Mr. Hoffman’s greatness – his ability to enter his characters and take them over completely, as he had done so especially well in assuming the personality of Truman Capote – had its basis in a keen comprehension of self-loathing. Whether playing Mr. Capote or the young James Tyrone, Jr. in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”, or the eerily effective cult impresario Lancaster Dodd in “The Master”, there is an undercurrent of things not being quite what they seem.
In “Capote”, Mr. Hoffman captured the edge of destructiveness that Mr. Capote cultivated until his own untimely end due mainly to drink. That movie was about Capote’s time writing “In Cold Blood”, an achievement almost impossible to top for a mere mortal. How do you do anything better? Every sentence thereafter that you write, immediately gets fed into the I.C.B. filter and, probably, fails the test. I am assuming that after winning the Academy Award for Best Actor, Mr. Hoffman must have felt that same pressure. How do I do better? How do I create art as good as that again? How do I not hate myself for failing to do it again and again?
Irrespective of whether I’ve captured Mr. Hoffman’s true state of mind, it is an exceedingly rare occurrence for a personage such as he to come to the end that he did.
None of my colleagues during the past 25 years of working in a conventional business world (as opposed to a show business one) had died of a drug overdose. There may have been dark nights in the lives of many of us when we faced the abyss of mortgages, career defeats, illnesses, and relationship turmoil. But none who I can think of had succumbed by his own hand.
Dying of a drug overdose when one is as successful and well-loved as was Philip Seymour Hoffman is incomprehensible from the vantage point of someone in a conventional career. Mr. Hoffman was successful and probably financially secure.
The manner of his end only makes sense when I remember the difficulty of ever having been truly creative; the high of achievement followed by the low of recognizing the flaws soon afterwards, and then trying to improve, to perfect the thing that I was creating.
Mr. Hoffman was not a street person needing to score because he failed at life. It seems to me that he instead needed to score because life had failed him.
I cannot get it out of my mind that the art was probably bigger and more relevant than anything else that Philip had ever experienced in his real life. I see the tip of that iceberg when I don’t write anything creative for a few weeks. I miss it the way I miss a good time once had. One wants it back, to fall back into that comfortable pillow and wallow in the pre-knowledge of how it will turn out, as an actor playing a role – the ultimate pre-knowledge of a fate.
But art has a merciless open-endedness that can never be overcome, except by dying. Delving into one’s dark side to extract resonance must take its toll. And one’s real daemons simply wait for you off stage.
But one doesn’t ever need to “go there” in business, because business is rational and obvious to all once it’s performed.
Art is not.
And that is the difference that I see, the need for art that I finally understand, and the reason why some cannot be business people and others cannot be artists.
To willingly delve into the unknown compartments of one’s heart and soul is a craziness that only an artist would find worthwhile. Yet it is the same heart and soul that we all have. It seems, however, that someone has to show us what it all means so that we are not left out on our own without affirmation of a mystery that is the source of the new day, even if it sometimes means that the artist falls to his death while walking along that edge.
As such I really believe that Mr. Hoffman’s death could be looked at as dying for his art. His vocation forced him to confront his demons possibly without ever overcoming them. Imagine playing an addict in Long Day’s Journey Into Night every night and twice on Saturdays, while being an addict yourself. When do you have the space to deal with your problem while drawing from it constantly to perform a role? I, on the other hand, can go to my job and escape my demons on a regular basis. As I have struggled to re-establish myself during the lows of my life after achieving my versions of Academy Award wins — marriage, child, promotions, house, car, stuff — I’ve felt the length of the day as Philip must have felt it in any struggle that he undoubtedly had, of those 24 hours that everyone is allotted to face our problems and make sense of them.
But I am not an artist like Mr. Hoffman. Irrespective of the eventual realization that my work life has been a long search for fulfillment that has come only in rare and sporadic moments of opportunities to be creative that had little to do with the actual task of making money, I’ve become in the process a magnificent hoper against hope that I will find meaning in all of it someday. I can’t imagine that it would have been different for Philip Seymour Hoffman at his level, also.
But the demon he conscripted for his art may have been an impatient one, perhaps a siren who Mr. Hoffman could no longer ignore as he should have, offering one more glimpse into the abyss where both art and death will dwell, carried by the type of self-loathing that seeks to overcome itself.
My point is that without art, there is no discovery of who we really are. Mr. Hoffman showed me through his ultimate end that art is necessary, that only art can explain certain things about our existence, and that art brings not only the observer – the consumer – close to what is the truth, but also the artist, who may find the journey so perilous through its all-consumption that he himself may not survive it in the end.