Philip Seymour Hoffman’s hard road to greatness

Hoffman never made the easy choice, never gave less than his all. Did that drive come at a price?

Topics: Philip Seymour Hoffman, philip seymour hoffman death, philip seymour hoffman addiction, addiction, ,

Philip Seymour Hoffman's hard road to greatnessPhillip Seymour Hoffman (Credit: AP/Victoria Will)

When some actors die, the loss feels personal. And so it was with Heath Ledger. And now Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Hoffman, who was found dead of an apparent drug overdose in an East Village apartment on Saturday, left behind a body of work that exemplifies the transformative power of great acting.

Writing about Hoffman for Vulture, film critic David Edelstein said, “You think about what made Philip Seymour Hoffman great—and wonder if a key to understanding his absurd death at the age of 46 from a drug overdose can be located somewhere in that greatness.”

It is a question worth asking, though difficult to answer – is there something about the quest for truth and honesty that drives some artists to drugs and alcohol?

Nearly every profile of Hoffman focused on his vulnerability, his sensitivity, his willingness to expose himself fully in every role. An oft-quoted line from a 2008 New York Times Magazine profile suggests the toll every performance must have taken on Hoffman: “[F]or me, acting is torturous, and it’s torturous because you know it’s a beautiful thing. I was young once, and I said, That’s beautiful and I want that. Wanting it is easy, but trying to be great — well, that’s absolutely torturous.”

Part of what made acting torturous for Hoffman was his refusal to ever simply play to type. In an interview for Esquire, Hoffman said, “to act well is always difficult, no matter the material.” Unlike some actors, Hoffman never made the easy choices with the characters he played, never seemed to be phoning it in. He had a particular talent for playing people from whom we recoil yet feel sympathy at the same time. And he put himself through the process of breaking a character down and building him back up with every role.

Hoffman’s description of his process reminds me of another artistic genius whose life ended early due to the ravages of addiction: John Coltrane. Coltrane was on an endless quest to express his spirituality and to connect with humanity through his music. In interviews, captured in the book “Coltrane on Coltrane: The Interviews,” edited by Chris DeVito, Coltrane frequently spoke of the need to keep experimenting, searching and learning about music. While Coltrane overcame his addiction to drugs and alcohol, his body suffered the effects; he died of liver cancer in 1967 at age 40.



Like Coltrane, Hoffman spoke of being in constant learning mode: “Creating anything is hard. It’s a cliché thing to say, but every time you start a job, you just don’t know anything … You start stabbing out, and you make a mistake, and it’s not right, and then you try again and again. The key is you have to commit.”

As a writer, I know firsthand how difficult it is to commit fully to the creative process. One of the hardest aspects of creative expression is making that commitment to keep working until the work is right. Actors, in particular, are exposed because the work they do is so personal. Hoffman was the rare talent who believed every acting role – regardless of the material – demanded greatness. And for that he paid the ultimate price.

Hoffman told “60 Minutes” that he got sober at age 22 because he “got panicked for his life.” We will never know why he started using again after such a long sober period. Although we lament the loss of artists who succumb to their addictions, we rarely consider whether those addictions may have helped fuel their artistry. Musician Saul Williams wrote on Facebook,

What Billie Holiday, Bill Evans, Fat[s] Navarro, Charlie Parker, Basquiat, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Chet Baker, Philip Seymour Hoffman and so many others had in common is that their sensitivity showed through their art.…For all we know their careers and lives may have ended much sooner if they hadn’t had found the crutches that eventually crippled them. The peace they felt in their highest moments is exactly what I wish them.

Certainly there are great artists who are able to balance vulnerability and self-care without resorting to drugs or alcohol. But perhaps if we made more of an effort to understand the connection between addiction and the drive required to produce great art, we might be able to help artists reach that place of deep vulnerability without sacrificing themselves in the process.

Hoffman, one of the greatest actors of any generation, leaves behind a body of work that will be studied for decades to come. I hope his final moments were filled with peace.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 7
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    AP/Jae C. Hong

    Your summer in extreme weather

    California drought

    Since May, California has faced a historic drought, resulting in the loss of 63 trillion gallons of water. 95.4 percent of the state is now experiencing "severe" drought conditions, which is only a marginal improvement from 97.5 percent last week.

    A recent study published in the journal Science found that the Earth has actually risen about 0.16 inches in the past 18 months because of the extreme loss of groundwater. The drought is particularly devastating for California's enormous agriculture industry and will cost the state $2.2 billion this year, cutting over 17,000 jobs in the process.

       

    Meteorologists blame the drought on a large zone (almost 4 miles high and 2,000 miles long) of high pressure in the atmosphere off the West Coast which blocks Pacific winter storms from reaching land. High pressure zones come and go, but this one has been stationary since December 2012.

    Darin Epperly

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Great Plains tornadoes

    From June 16-18 this year, the Midwest was slammed by a series of four tornadoes, all ranking as category EF4--meaning the winds reached up to 200 miles per hour. An unlucky town called Pilger in Nebraska was hit especially hard, suffering through twin tornadoes, an extreme event that may only occur every few decades. The two that swept through the town killed two people, injured 16 and demolished as many as 50 homes.   

    "It was terribly wide," local resident Marianne Pesotta said to CNN affiliate KETV-TV. "I drove east [to escape]. I could see how bad it was. I had to get out of there."   

    But atmospheric scientist Jeff Weber cautions against connecting these events with climate change. "This is not a climate signal," he said in an interview with NBC News. "This is a meteorological signal."

    AP/Detroit News, David Coates

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Michigan flooding

    On Aug. 11, Detroit's wettest day in 89 years -- with rainfall at 4.57 inches -- resulted in the flooding of at least five major freeways, leading to three deaths, more than 1,000 cars being abandoned on the road and thousands of ruined basements. Gov. Rick Snyder declared it a disaster. It took officials two full days to clear the roads. Weeks later, FEMA is finally set to begin assessing damage.   

    Heavy rainfall events are becoming more and more common, and some scientists have attributed the trend to climate change, since the atmosphere can hold more moisture at higher temperatures. Mashable's Andrew Freedman wrote on the increasing incidence of this type of weather: "This means that storms, from localized thunderstorms to massive hurricanes, have more energy to work with, and are able to wring out greater amounts of rain or snow in heavy bursts. In general, more precipitation is now coming in shorter, heavier bursts compared to a few decades ago, and this is putting strain on urban infrastructure such as sewer systems that are unable to handle such sudden influxes of water."

    AP/The Fresno Bee, Eric Paul Zamora

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Yosemite wildfires

    An extreme wildfire burning near Yosemite National Park forced authorities to evacuate 13,000 nearby residents, while the Madera County sheriff declared a local emergency. The summer has been marked by several wildfires due to California's extreme drought, which causes vegetation to become perfect kindling.   

    Surprisingly, however, firefighters have done an admirable job containing the blazes. According to the L.A. Times, firefighters with the state's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection have fought over 4,000 fires so far in 2014 -- an increase of over 500 fires from the same time in 2013.

    Reuters/Eugene Tanner

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Hawaii hurricanes

    Hurricane Iselle was set to be the first hurricane to make landfall in Hawaii in 22 years. It was downgraded to a tropical storm and didn't end up being nearly as disastrous as it could have been, but it still managed to essentially shut down the entire state for a day, as businesses and residents hunkered down in preparation, with many boarding up their windows to guard against strong gusts. The storm resulted in downed trees, 21,000 people out of power and a number of damaged homes.

    Debbie Arita, a local from the Big Island described her experience: "We could hear the wind howling through the doors. The light poles in the parking lot were bobbing up and down with all the wind and rain."

    Reuters/NASA

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Florida red tide

    A major red tide bloom can reach more than 100 miles along the coast and around 30 miles offshore. Although you can't really see it in the above photo, the effects are devastating for wildlife. This summer, Florida was hit by an enormous, lingering red tide, also known as a harmful algae bloom (HAB), which occurs when algae grow out of control. HABs are toxic to fish, crabs, octopuses and other sea creatures, and this one resulted in the death of thousands of fish. When the HAB gets close enough to shore, it can also have an effect on air quality, making it harder for people to breathe.   

    The HAB is currently closest to land near Pinellas County in the Gulf of Mexico, where it is 5-10 miles offshore.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

Loading Comments...