An actor who cut to audience's core
Philip Seymour Hoffman, relentless in the pursuit of the character.
teaches writing and literature at Clark University
Like many who saw him perform, I won't soon forget Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. Not because I saw his Broadway show. Nor because I screen one of his movies to my students. It's because he was undeniably human, both on screen and now most certainly off.
His body was found on a Sunday morning in his New York City apartment, a syringe in his arm. He was a struggling addict who reportedly had not used for 23 years when he relapsed last year.
From loser-loners to men both strong and shattered, he did self-loathing, rage, and coolness at the drop of a dime. Intense, intelligent, relentless in his pursuit of becoming the character he portrayed, he seemed wholly new, beyond the previous generation's method actors.
His finest performance was the one I witnessed in New York in 2003, in Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night. That afternoon, it should have been called Hoffman's Long Day's Journey Into Night.
That's because despite its all-star cast, including Brian Dennehy and Vanessa Redgrave, it was Hoffman's portrayal of Jamie Tyrone - the bitterly ironic, alcoholic older brother to the sickly poet son - that reached into the wings of the Plymouth Theatre and didn't let me go for more than three straight hours.
Every line, every gesture was that of a young man revealing his demons authentically - the deprecating humor, the guilt, the shame. Hoffman seemed to me the only one that night making something entirely new - not from the lines of a fusty play that takes place on a single evening in 1912, but from his own insight and sensitivity.
I knew nothing of Hoffman's demons at the time. (And I still don't.) One thing was certain: He had them. That's because actors who are great, but who aren't real alcoholics, fail to convincingly play them on stage or screen. Not Hoffman. He told a New York Times Magazine reporter that the performance "nearly killed" him.
I knew it because I had been sober myself for about 11 years when I saw the play. I knew it also because by the end of the show, when the sharp light of a late-summer New York afternoon struck me in the eye, I wanted one of two things: Have a stiff Scotch myself or bawl my eyes out. I thankfully did the latter.
Bawl them out for what, I did not know. Maybe it was for the real biographical character Hoffman played. O'Neill's own tormented older brother drank himself to death at age 45. (Hoffman was just a year older when he died of a reported heroin overdose.)
Maybe I cried for the actor himself. What Hoffman grappled with was so honest and true and exhaustingly painful that there seemed no right response other than to applaud for 10 straight minutes afterward and then cry. I remember turning to my wife. "How can he sleep at night?" I asked. The performance would have sapped the life out of an actor twice as experienced.
Or maybe I bawled for my own demons to come. They would within a month of witnessing Hoffman on stage. When my baby sister - an artist, age 35, mother of two young children - died in an automobile accident near Bodega Bay, Calif. When I heard the news, I wanted a drink more than I ever had before. I cried instead and held on to my own sobriety like life itself.
I lived. Hoffman died. So it goes with addicts and alcoholics.
His passing has nonetheless unleashed talk of complex issues: the epidemic return of heroin to Philadelphia and most every other large American city, the increasing crossover of consumers from painkillers to the less costly heroin not just in young people so much as a new group: suburban 45- to 54-year-olds. And even more dangerous than heroin alone are painkillers 100 times more powerful than morphine.
Beyond the unsolvable issues his Feb. 2 death raises, what remains for me is the work. Every semester, I show one of his films.
My students first read In Cold Blood, the 1966 book that altered American letters, and made and then unmade its writer, Truman Capote. Unlike Hoffman, Capote spiraled for years into a shamelessly, self-embarrassing shell of his former self and died an alcoholic and prescription-pill addict in 1984.
Then I show the class the film Capote. My students consistently express surprise at hearing Capote's voice as portrayed by Hoffman. He didn't really talk that way, they tell me. Yet by the end, they, too, are won over by Hoffman's Oscar-winning performance.
In the movie, he says something like, "When I think of how good my book is going to be, I can't breathe."
Now that Philip Seymour Hoffman has left us so suddenly and pointlessly, when I think of how good he actually was, I can't breathe, either.