July 23, 2019

Philip Seymour Hoffman and the mortal coil

With its gleaming jewels, movie star smiles and fluttering fabrics, the Academy Awards is no place for real sorrow or despair. The Oscars exist as a fantastic otherworld, an ethereal fantasy of greatness where achievement means everything and winners are hailed as gods.

But this year, sadness has pierced the puffery; one of those gods is now a ghost on the red carpet. 

The death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman earlier this month hit hard. At 46, he was in the prime of his career — the father of three children with a slew of projects in the works and a reputation as the greatest actor of his generation. He was the male Meryl Streep. 

Hoffman’s death was especially shocking because he lived so vitally in his work — and as it turned out, struggled so wretchedly in private. The news of his death revealed the extent of his strife; Hoffman was an addict, heroin was his fix, and his final high was so overpowering he died with a needle still pinned in his arm. I asked my friend, producer David Faigenblum, who worked with Hoffman on 2012’s “A Late Quartet,” whether he had sensed the actor’s troubles. “He never came to the set high, nothing like that,” Faigenblum told me. 

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” Henry David Thoreau wrote. 

But the mass of men do not possess Hoffman’s shattering talent; Aaron Sorkin described him well as “a thunderous actor,” because he had the ability to vanquish the territory of any stage or screen on which he performed. So often when Hoffman was acting, everyone else was displaced to supporting roles. Deep talent was his blessing and his curse.

Hoffman’s career was full of performances in which he wasn’t so much acting as inhabiting his characters, not so much playing a part as creating a person. He could articulate human distinctions with stunning truth and lucidity. His characters knew their own interiors better than most human beings know themselves. What was it, exactly, that enabled him access to sparks of the divine? Was his a God-given gift? A carefully honed craft? Or bright shards of clarity discovered in the darkness of his soul? 

In private, he was a victim of addiction. In public, he oozed creative control. He was servant in one role, master in the other. 

Sorkin, another genius with a history of dependency, wrote in an ode to his friend and colleague for Time magazine: “People like us are the only ones to whom tales of insanity don’t sound insane.”

People like addicts, Sorkin meant. But he was being modest. Should we define the artist by his addiction or is addiction a symptom of extraordinary artistry? History is littered with great talents possessed of some kind of merciless madness. Even the great Charles Dickens observed in 1869 that “the life of almost any man possessing great gifts, would be a sad book to himself.” 

But why? Does extreme suffering in life enable the utterly sublime in art? 

Extremities of experience have enormous utility for the artist. Writers, poets, painters and actors often plumb to the depths of their own souls in order to reveal some truth about the human condition. Pondering the inner mysteries of the human heart and mind is their ultimate task — maybe even their religion. And any spiritual tradition worth its salt requires some sort of sacrifice.

In his 1911 story, “Death in Venice” Thomas Mann wrote of a man who daily “sacrificed his energy to art:” “For he had always believed that an artistry can be called truly great, universal, indeed truly admirable and honorable, only if it is fortunate enough to be characteristically fertile on all levels of human experience.”

To achieve extraordinary things — not just Oscar greatness by Academy vote, but greatness by generational consensus — Mann tells us the artist must live “in the teeth of suffering.” He can never know idleness, nor “the carefree heedlessness of youth.” His ultimate purpose is not to enjoy but to enlighten: “[A] congruence must exist between the personal destiny of the author and the overall destiny of his generation.” 

In this pursuit, an ordinary life just will not do.

“Almost every great opus that exists,” Mann tells us, “has come into existence despite everything — despite grief and torment, poverty, abandonment, physical weakness, vice, passion, and a thousand other hindrances.” 

Art is not for the faint of heart.

Mann believed that a life of artistic rigor is more sublime than a life of joie de vivre (“It delights more deeply, it consumes more swiftly …”), and perhaps, for some, he was right. 

The agony and the ecstasy of existence pulsed in the poisoned blood of Hoffman’s veins. He didn’t live for awards, but for creative absorption. He was never the picture of health, but he gave great sustenance to his audience. His life may not always have been a joyous one, but through the living of it, he brought joy to so many others.