From left to right: Andrew Garfield, Finn Wittrock, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Linda Emond in Death of a Salesman.
Fucking drugs, man. Fucking drugs.
In all his performances, Philip Seymour Hoffman revealed his inner turmoil, which makes for the greatest acting. It’s one thing to hide under the character, it’s another to reveal yourself through him. Even in the smallest roles, you felt a connection with Philip Seymour Hoffman. When I saw him in Boogie Nights get rejected by Mark Wahlberg at the New Years party, I wanted to reach through my computer screen and hug him. I wanted to do the same even when he played characters who were morally compromised. The amount of heartbreak he could put into something as simple as singing “On a Slow Boat to China” in The Master is something that will stay with me forever.
One of the greatest experiences I’ve had as a theatregoer was seeing him play Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, directed by Mike Nichols. My Dad had been in Charlie Wilson’s War a few years prior, and, while on set with Mike and Phil, had mentioned to them that I was reading the play for the first time. They both started talking about how it was their favorite play and how they wanted to do it someday. I dreamed that, when the time was right, I would get to direct Phil Hoffman as Willy, but seeing Mike Nichols do it, I felt no regrets—how could I, when you see someone you love give the performance you dream of?
While I plan on having a mini film-festival this week to watch some of my favorite performances of his (Almost Famous, Capote, The Master) and ones I haven’t caught up on (The Talented Mr. Ripley), the only thing I’m going to be able to think about is the performances I’m never going to see him give. Think about how great he would have been as Falstaff; Hickey in The Iceman Cometh; James Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night (he had played Jamie ten years ago on Broadway); Buddy Plummer in Stephen Sondheim’s Follies—I doubt the dancing would’ve been easy for him, but I’m sure his “Buddy’s Blues” would’ve been terrific. And that’s where I get angry with him. All hard drugs are equally life-ruining when abused, but heroin, his addiction, seems to be the one that robs us of the most great artists: Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane, Chris Farley. It’s the one that seems to have a mythos around it linking it with creativity. Hoffman’s death should end that mythos, but chances are it won’t, because the problem isn’t just heroin, the problem is addiction itself.
I look on addicts with a combination of scorn and sadness: scorn because they are destroying themselves a day at a time, and sadness because they’re unable to save themselves from themselves. It’s a disease that no doctor can cure you of. Sure, there are rehabilitation centers, experimental therapies, and anonymous groups, but the only person who can stop you from being an addict is you. My Mom can speak about the evils of addiction with more authority than I can—she is the child of alcoholics, and her family tree is riddled with the disease—but I’ve known people who were alcohol and drug addicts, and cannot understand their refusal to quit in the face of everyone telling them to do so.
A lot of people have been writing on Facebook that Hoffman’s death was a waste. It was, in that it didn’t need to happen. It could’ve been prevented if he’d had the courage to stop himself. Looking at him, I’m reminded of a quote from Goethe: “A human life remains of value not because of what we leave behind, but because we arouse and inspire others to action.” Hoffman should not be respected in any way for his substance abuse. It wrecked his life, and it wrecked the lives of his girlfriend and the three children they had together. But we’re lucky that we have his art, which is going to inspire actors for years to come.