Why is it that artistic brilliance is so often accompanied by such unfathomable emotional and psychological dysfunction and suffering that the star implodes and we are left with darkness long before we have been touched by all its facets? The list is long: F. Scott Fitzgerald, alcoholic, died at age 44; Dylan Thomas, alcoholic, died at age 39; Charlie Parker, heroin addict, died at age 35; Bill Evans, cocaine and heroin addict, died at age 51; Jimi Hendrix, drug and alcohol abuser, died at age 27; Heath Ledger, abuser of prescription medications, died at age 28; David Foster Wallace, depressive, died at the age of 46.
These names represent only a small portion of the brightest lights of the artistic world that have been extinguished; and we are only talking about the last hundred years. Think also of Janis Joplin, Michael Jackson, River Phoenix, Montgomery Clift, Jim Morrison, Elvis Presley, John Belushi, Lenny Bruce, Sylvia Plath, Hank Williams…. One has to wonder how much our lives would have been enriched had these artists remained with us and grown to their full potential.
Then again, there are those who were troubled but still managed to live a reasonably long life; in many cases, though, their demons stifled their artistic evolution. Tennessee Williams, acclaimed playwright (A Streetcar Named Desire, The Glass Menagerie, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), lived to be 71 but following enormous success in the 1940s and 1950s, increasing alcohol and drug consumption affected his creative output and plays he wrote in the 1960s and 1970s were critical and box office failures.
And now there is Philip Seymour Hoffman. I first saw him in The Talented Mr. Ripley, the wonderful Anthony Minghella film in which Hoffman played the effete but edgy Freddie Miles, stealing every scene he appeared in, and I loved him from that moment. In fact, Freddie is my favourite Hoffman part.
From minor or supporting roles, like Oakland A’s manager Art Howe in Moneyball and Gust Avrakotos in Charlie Wilson’s War, to leading turns in Capote, Doubt, and Owning Mahowny, Hoffman consistently displayed the characteristics of a brilliant actor: subtlety, nuance, integrity, range, utter believability.
One of the great advantages enjoyed by Hoffman as an actor was the fact that he did not have a pretty face. It was a face full of character but Philip Seymour was not Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise in the looks department, meaning of course that while on the one hand he was never a huge box-office draw, on the other, he was never typecast, allowing him to play a wide range of characters on screen. Not being a classic beauty also meant that he was able, like the great Meryl Streep, to disappear into every role and virtually become the character he played.
Hoffman was also a risk taker. One can imagine the challenge of taking on the role of the eccentric, haunted, and cunning Truman Capote; mastering the voice alone must have been a daunting enterprise, one that I cannot believe the likes of Pitt or Cruise could ever assume with credible results.
Or the risk involved in playing the single-mindedly self-absorbed compulsive gambler Dan Mahowny. Here is how Hoffman is described in the role by critic Roger Ebert: “Philip Seymour Hoffman, that fearless poet of implosion, plays the role with a fierce integrity, never sending out signals for our sympathy because he knows that Mahowny is oblivious to our presence. Like an artist, an athlete or a mystic, Mahowny is alone within the practice of his discipline.” The risk here is of course that Mahowny’s narrow focus will bore the audience, but Hoffman’s portrayal is so nuanced and subtle – and so compellingly believable – that the viewer cannot be anything but riveted.
Ebert: “Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance is a masterpiece of discipline and precision. He hardly ever raises his head from the task at hand, or his voice from the detached reserve of a – well, of a bank functionary. He spends a lot of time adjusting his glasses or resting his fingers on his temples, as if to enhance his tunnel vision. He never meets the eye of the camera, or anyone else. Even when a casino security guard is firmly leading his fiancée away from his table, he hardly looks up to notice that she is there, or to say a word in his defense. He is … gambling.”
Finally, the big challenge in Doubt is to match performances with the notoriously scene-stealing Streep, who plays Hoffman’s bitter and determined adversary. Hoffman, clearly well prepared, does not allow his co-star to defeat him before such a defeat is called for by the screenplay.
I shall mourn Philip Seymour Hoffman as I have not mourned many other passing artists, especially those in film. But I will regret even more the loss of what we might have expected over the next twenty years of his career. But then again, perhaps Hoffman’s early exit from the stage, like the exits of Parker and Thomas and Ledger and Evans, was the gods telling us that he had already reached the apex of his artistic achievement and that his sudden death was a blessing. For if he had lived, like Tennessee Williams, he might have had to suffer – and we might have had to witness – a painful and humiliating decline.
And it is a rare artist that can tolerate humiliation.
“Philip Seymour Hoffman, 2011.” Wikipediaa.
“_MG_0749” by Justin Hoch. Creative Commons Flickr. Some rights reserved.
Recent Ross Lonergan Articles:
- The Film-School Student Who Never Graduates: A Profile of Ang Lee, Part Four
- The Film-School Student Who Never Graduates: A Profile of Ang Lee, Part Three
- The Film-School Student Who Never Graduates: A Profile of Ang Lee, Part Two
- The Film-School Student Who Never Graduates: A Profile of Ang Lee, Part One
- Bullying, Fear, And The Full Moon (Part Four)