Philip Seymour Hoffman (July 23, 1967 – February 2, 2014)

It’s been over a week, but that hasn’t dulled the loss. They say they go in threes, and, of the more famous ones, he was preceded by Pete Seeger and followed by Shirley Temple. Still this one stood out a little more. His was maybe the most impactful death to me since Roger Ebert’s. Still, in all of these scenarios, he did not have the understandable circumstance of old age.

I remember stepping out of the shower on Superbowl Sunday and getting a text. “Philip Seymour Hoffman is dead,” it said. And for a second I genuinely thought I would cry. And then I didn’t. And then I chastised myself. Why would you cry for this man you didn’t know, I aked? Sure, it’s sad. But talented people die all the time. We get on with our lives. And get on I did. I met my friend for lunch. I watched my first Superbowl. I strained my vocal chords with excitement. I had some badass guacamole. Overall, it was a pretty good day. And yet throughout it, I kept looking up obituaries, tweets, Facebook statuses; outpourings of grief for this unique and prodigious talent and, what seems to be unanimously agreed upon, a gentle soul. I find it funny that the two Facebook statuses I put up that day were an all-lowercase statement of mourning and an all-caps exclamation of hometown pride. It’s weird when those days happen.

He clearly meant something to me. Means. He clearly means something to a lot of us. Many have already expressed their grief with more eloquence than I will do here, but I thought I’d say my small piece, to try and figure out what that meaning, that connection to this man I’ve never met, was.

I think the first time I ever saw Phil Hoffman was in Patch Adams. I was probably eight years old, and I certainly did not know his name. Patch Adams, for those of you who don’t remember, was the Robin Williams comedy-drama ‘Based on a True Story’ about a doctor who shakes up the uptight medical system with his excessive happiness and doing clown routines for cancer-stricken kids. I remember Patch Adams was one of the first movies that moved me to tears, along with the likes of Erin Brockovich and Dead Poets Society, and that taught me what an unbelievable catharsis that could be. That Patch Adams is on that list is something of an embarrassment to me, as the film was maligned, then and now, for being unrelentingly, brazenly emotionally manipulative. But I always remembered Hoffman. He played Mitch, Adams’ stuffy, studious roommate. Y’know, the one who goes by the book until the free spirit’s alternative methods bring him around. It’s the definition of a thankless role. But Hoffman played it earnestly. Not obviously, but earnestly. And when the inevitable confrontation between Mitch and Patch comes, Hoffman screams, “You make my work a joke,” you believe him. Believed. Believe.

I don’t remember the ‘Ah ha!’ moment of learning who Philip Seymour Hoffman was, though it wasn’t until much later. I think it might have been around the time he starred as the villain of Mission: Impossible III (easily the best thing in it) and pulled off his first (and only) Oscar win for the eponymous role in Capote (he would be nominated three more times for Charlie Wilson’s War, Doubt, and The Master, respectively.) I can – and have – gone on at length about his excellence in any of these roles. Perhaps the filmmaker who most understood his talents was Paul Thomas Anderson, the American auteur who paired Hoffman to entirely distinct roles in almost all of his films (the exceptions being There Will Be Blood and the forthcoming Inherent Vice,) shuttling him from his debut cameo as an obnoxious Vegas gambler in Hard Eight to his breakout role as the achingly awkward, repressed Scotty in Boogie Nights. There’s his beautifully understated compassion in Magnolia’s Phil Parma, and his angry, belligerent Dean ‘Mattress Man’ Trumbell in Punch-Drunk Love (watching him scream over the phone at Adam Sandler to shut up is one of cinemas’ most underrated comedic gems.) Then there’s The Master’s loquacious, pompous cult leader Lancaster Dodd, whose verbal square-off with Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell as he attempts to initiate him through ‘Processing’ was among the most well-written, well-acted scenes of the year, and arguably of movie history.

Hoffman was also, unsurprisingly, prolific in the theater, plying his trade at both performing and directing. He joined the LAByrinth Theater Company in New York, which he later became co-artisitic director of with fellow actor John Ortiz. It was there that he met his longtime romantic partner, costume designer Mimi O’Donnell, while directing a production of In Arabia We’d All Be Kings. Hoffman’s Broadway performances garnered him several Tony nominations (for True West, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and Death of a Salesman, respectively,) though he directed many, many more.

I know I’ll get the details of this wrong, but one of Hoffman’s early theatrical roles was a collaboration with my parents. Well, one of them at least. In the late 80’s, CARE New York produced “One World Rap,” a school play of sorts designed to educate inner-city youth on the importance of education and the privilege we in the West have over much the developing world. Hoffman – honest to Christ – starred as Robbie, a student with a boombox and a passion for rap who, if my mother is to be believed, repeatedly chants the refrain of “WE!/ALL!/LIVE IN ONE WORLD!!!” I hope someone somewhere has a video of this. If not, I hope somebody somewhere was fired for something.

One of Hoffman’s Off-Broadway productions, Robert Glaudini’s Jack Goes Boating, eventually became his only foray into film directing. As Jack, Hoffman also starred as a shy, lonely blue-collar limo driver who enjoys getting high with his only two discernable friends, married couple Cylde (Ortiz) and Lucy (Daphne Rubin-Vega) and keeps his hair in short, matted dreadlocks. Clyde and Lucy set him up on a blind date with the equally shy, lonely Connie (Amy Ryan), and the film follows their slow, gentle courtship while their friends’ marriage concurrently disintegrates. Hoffman approached the material and his actors – himself included – with an utter lack of vanity. Jack is tired and worn-down and schlubby, and so is Connie. But there is a spark of life within and between them. Though their awkwardness is certainly used for laughs, they are not laughable. Hoffman reveals their layers with an objective realism that belies true warmth and tenderness, as these two come to realize that they are loved and loveable. It is maybe my favorite performance of his.

It may not mean much coming from someone who’s not a professional actor, but Philip Seymour Hoffman was and is an inspiration to me. I remember Jim Carrey was the first celebrity whose name I ever knew, and is still the only whose movies I will see based on his name alone. I remember being in awe of his elasticity, his faces, his voices, the way he contorted his body, how all these reduced me to stitches. I remember how bold and admirable I thought it was that he had this willingness (some might say need) to do anything for a laugh and to throw himself headlong into it, and much to the chagrin of my friends and family, I emulated him religiously. I also remember being inspired by Jack Black in middle school, a man who had the same comedic confidence as Carrey but who was closer to my body type, being moved by a man who shared attributes with me that I was all too painfully aware of and seemed to embrace them, and I, too, emulated him. But as I grew older and more interested in acting beyond being ‘The Funny Guy,’ I looked to Hoffman more and more. Here was a chubby, average-looking man who would not stand out in a crowd. A total dude, if you will. And yet he possessed incredible gifts, presence and range and integrity and who commanded your respect and attention. His filmography is host to a variety of characters performed with incredible honesty. It may sound cheesy, but I honestly find myself, when I am having trouble with a role, wondering, “How would Phil Hoffman do it? How would he look? How would he sound?” Of his performances I have seen, there are a great many that I wish were mine. I know that sounds shallow and vain, but it’s true. He was that fucking good.

Hoffman had a prolific career, and he certainly wasn’t slowing down before he passed. He recently been announced as the star of upcoming Showtime series Happyish, and had just been at the Sundance Film Festival promoting God’s Pocket, the directorial debut of fellow actor John Slattery, as well as music video director Anton Corbijn’s A Most Wanted Man. He was also finishing up  work on his role as Plutarch Heavensbee in the two-part Hunger Games finale, Mockingjay. Literally the day before he died, I read that Hoffman had just announced plans for his sophomore film as director, Ezekiel Moss, a period piece with supernatural elements, and Jake Gyllenhaal and Amy Adams attached to star. I was excited.

I remembered reading, almost a year ago, an article – most likely on the front page of the IMDB – describing how Hoffman had checked himself into rehab for snorting heroin. Not injecting, not ingesting, snorting. He had relapsed only a week prior and was released only a week later. I wondered, first and foremost, how much a week of rehabilitation would actually help someone who had fallen off the wagon so quickly. But then I also wondered how big the media shitstorm surrounding Hoffman would be, the public outcry. How could he?! The SHAME of an Academy Award-winning actor – with three children! – who stooped so low as to do heroin. I braced myself for the torrent …Only it didn’t come. I think I might’ve been the only person I knew who knew of what had happened. And I didn’t bring it up because, I dunno, it didn’t feel right? Something like that? I’ve often wondered why that was.

I have, without even trying, been kept up to date on several stages of Justin Beiber’s DUI arrest. I also learned that he was accused of egging someone’s house. I don’t feel particularly strongly about Beiber one way or the other, as an artist or a person, but I do believe that he is another in a long line of celebrities that will be chewed up and spat out and shit upon, because we as a society do that.  To what end I’m not certain; to feel vindicated in our intelligence? Our comparative lack of wealth?  Either way, we have mocked the downfall of many a celebrity before and will certainly mock many more to come.

…But not Phil Hoffman. Why? Because he was clearly smart? Talented? Did he seem like a nice guy? Did we think his accomplishments made him a nice guy? Did we just like him more? Either way, seeing Hoffman’s face on the cover of People and the words ‘His Tragic Final Days’ emblazoned next to him… It feels more personal. Not in the ‘it happened to me’ sense, but in as much it’s somehow easier to imagine what his family is going through. I don’t know.

I read many a Facebook status expressing bewilderment with the concept of addiction and why Hoffman would have used such a dangerous substance in the first place? Surely he knew the dangers associated, so why would he take such leave of his senses. I’m not an addict (not a chemical one, at least,) but the way I see it is this. I used to look down pretty on substance use in general, but especially on addicts. I believed that they were selfish and impulsive and deserved every misfortune that came their way, death included. I also felt similarly about depressed people. There were people in my high school who were depressed, so much so many of them cut their wrists. I made fun of these people to their faces, and I insisted that their problems were not real, and to these people I am sorry every day.

That’s because I eventually became a victim of depression. I didn’t go looking for it, I wasn’t trying to get attention. It found me. It came completely out of the blue and knocked the wind out of me, and for six months I was terrified of living, and then spent another six months trying to ignore that terror as much as possible before I finally committed to therapy. There were times when I genuinely wanted to die, or if not die, stay asleep forever, because waking up meant confronting my life, which had suddenly become so hard and cold and helpless. I am lucky that I had the support group that I had, and that I was able to not turn to drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism, and that I’ve been able to work to a place where I worry about how I’ll be able to give my life meaning instead of if I want to live it at all. I’m lucky. Many others are not.

I know why I felt way I did about addiction and depression. We as a society are trained to see mental problems not as diseases but as faults of character. These two articles sum it up pretty well. And besides, I don’t imagine most addicts realize their addicts until they’re addicted. I mean, isn’t that what a disease is? You’re not sick until you’re infected. There’s a reason people don’t start off doing heroin.

I’m sure that even though it didn’t become an enormous story, having his personal troubles in the public arena was more than Hoffman could bear. Still, I wonder if his relapse becoming a more public story might have helped keep him on the straight and narrow. Maybe it would’ve just made it worse. Maybe he shouldn’t have been in New York at that place and that time. Maybe he shouldn’t been working so hard; maybe he should’ve been working more. Maybe he’d never have become an addict if it weren’t for something from his past, so far away and so personal that nobody but him could know what it was. Or maybe, in the end, there was nothing that anybody – not even Philip Seymour Hoffman – could do. And maybe that’s the saddest thing of all.

He is survived by Mimi O’Donnell and their three children.

phil

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