Philip Seymour Hoffman in Hindsight: An Essay by Brad Phillips


Philip Seymour Hoffman died 896 days ago as of today. Soon after his death I learned he was something I’m all too familiar with—an opiate addict. Philip Seymour Hoffman played out a classic scenario that he, my own father, and half a dozen friends have: he died, accidentally or not, of a drug overdose. As with the death of my father, and with far too many people I’ve known, my feelings were mixed. I felt sad, knowing how much suffering lived behind his death, and I felt relieved for him, having gotten out of that suffering—not only having gotten out, but out in the way that is most ideal, extremely high on God’s own drug.

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I’d always admired his acting. Even in The Hunger Games, a movie atypical to his oeuvre, he was faultless in his performance. I began to revisit more of his films after knowing how he had lived and died. I felt an affinity with him, and I wanted to watch him and see if I saw myself, my father. What struck me immediately, in films as disparate as The Hunger Games and Capote, was the same convincing anguish that formed the backdrop to all of his facial expressions, his sounds, his movements. Method acting is a thing people learn and do. I’ve always thought it was silly, to recall sad moments from your past and dig at them to portray various emotions with authenticity. The Hoffman method was different in that the painful moment was not in the past, but always with him. He needn’t remember his dad punching his mother, he need only remember what he’d done five minutes ago in his dressing room; he only need think of what prompted him to do it. Put simply, he only needed to think.

In Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, filmed in 2007 when Hoffman was 40 (I was shocked to discover he was so young at the time, as he looks much older. Similarly, my father died at 50 looking close to 70), the actor plays a character who is, as Hoffman’s characters often seem to be, desperate. Desperate for money, desperate to maintain a lifestyle that keeps his beautiful wife (Marisa Tomei) from decamping to somewhere less desperate, Hoffman and his brother (played by the consistently irritating Ethan Hawke) rob their own parent’s jewellery store. Their mother is not supposed to be there, therefore their mother is not supposed to be shot and killed, as she is in the film. Depression begets more desperation. Being partly Irish, I know the title of the film to come from this particularly negative Celtic toast: “May you have food and raiment, a soft pillow for your head; may you be 40 years in heaven, before the devil knows you’re dead.” The end of the quote speaks to the typical internal monologue of the everyday addict, the monologue that constantly tells you you’re no good, that you’re going to hell. It’s a good enough movie, and like the majority of films starring Hoffman that are good enough, he is very good. He is particularly good in scenes where he drinks, where he sits in his office slowly and quietly becoming enraged, his forehead veins pulsing furiously. Scenes where he expresses anger in horrifyingly quiet ways, scenes where he explodes. The scenes where he is most natural are these: Hoffman goes to the slick apartment of a fey 110-pound dope dealer who wears nothing but a kimono and stares out the window of his opulent high-rise apartment fingering his ultra-modern 200-dollar haircut. Hoffman moves to the bedroom. With apparent difficulty, he removes his pants, shirt and shoes, then with noticeable discomfort to the bed, lays himself down on the Norwegian memory foam mattress to be tied off and shot up by his pretentious dandy dealer. In this scene, Hoffman is an expert actor. After his death, his expertise became dumbly obvious.

Pull Quote Hoffman

One wonders if it was laziness or artistic commitment that pushed him to consistently play roles that mirrored in many ways his own personal life. Lazy because he knew the addict type, the myriad of facial expressions and discomforting postures – or artistically committed in that he wanted to see how far he could use his own experience to portray, with painful accuracy, characters that others would find challenging to convey authentically. Maybe his agent was also a gopher, and having sent enough dope to his trailer, began to recognize the films most suited to his lifestyle. I know that if a character in a film had a bad father, was in recovery, and drank a great deal of Gatorade, anyone close to me would suggest I audition for the role. If I were an actor, which I’m not. Though as all actors are self-involved, as all are addicts, I’ve simply chosen a different profession, one which affords me more privacy and less interaction with other human beings.

The internet. Fun and easy! Let us run through his filmography and see what’s going on.

The Master, 2012 – Hoffman plays L. Ron Hubbard, just differently named to avoid a lawsuit—charismatic cult leader, power addict.

Almost Famous, 2000 – Hoffman plays Lester Bangs: real life music journalist, real life death attributed to “accidental drug overdose.”

Capote, 2005 – Hoffman plays Truman Capote: drug addict, alcoholic, (cause of death related to both). Inveterate liar, fabricator, manipulator (addict).

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead – ibid.

God’s Pocket, 2014 – Hoffman plays “a boozy lowlife”

Love Liza, 2002 – Hoffman plays a man who “after his wife commits suicide, begins to sniff gasoline and search for answers.”

Owning Mahoney, 2003 – ibid.

Twister, 1996 – Alright, just a storm-chasing stoner.

Ok, so it may not be that many considering his steady and constant output, but still it seems disproportionate, and he plays these characters with such disturbing realism. I’ve never hung out with a priest (Doubt, 2008), or a pro baseball team manager (Moneyball, 2011) – but I’ve hung out with innumerable junkies and alcoholics, and I know he’s got that role down.

Most people were introduced to Hoffman in P.T. Anderson’s Boogie Nights, released in 1997 when Hoffman was 30. Although his role as Scotty the porn scene hanger-on was minor, it tends to be one that almost everyone remembers from that film. The moment where Scotty attempts to kiss leading man and pansexual stud Dirk Diggler stands out as perhaps the most emotionally brutal scene in the film. Why? Authenticity. Hoffman-as-Scotty again repeats to himself the internal monologue of the everyday addict—“I’m an idiot! I’m an idiot!” It’s convincing on film because it’s convincing when he’s in his trailer.

His role in Boogie Nights, while being a perfect piece of acting, is a perfect portrayal of an addict around the age of thirty. In an interview with Steve Kroft on 60 Minutes Overtime from 2006, Hoffman admits to having first gone to rehab at the age of 22. He describes his behaviour at that age as being ‘“advanced” for an addict. In the interview he looks healthy, vibrant. I’ve looked healthy and vibrant while also lying convincingly. There’s no way to know if he was clean at that time or not. What’s apparent is that Hoffman was a self-aware addict from an early age, who seemed to have stints of sobriety followed by relapses, a pattern that almost always results in the inevitable end he met. At thirty, if you’ve been using for, say, ten years, you’ve become disabused of the illusion of your invincibility. Most likely Hoffman was using in order to avoid being dope-sick, not to get high. An opiate addict at thirty, if they’re self-aware, experiences an overwhelming influx of knowledge about the complete fucked-up-ness of their situation. The party is over. They cannot find the exit to the party. Maybe your cokehead and alcoholic friends are still enjoying themselves, but as a junkie, you’re beginning to notice your encroaching hearing loss. You’re starting to break bones that shouldn’t be so easy to break. Your teeth chip eating tangerines. Opiates are very effective at sucking you in, opiates are expert at blackmail. If you stop now they say, everyone’s gonna know what you’ve been up to. But if you just maintain your fidelity to heroin (Vicodin, Fentanyl, Percocet, Dilaudid, Morphine), we can ensure you a manageable habit, it just comes with a miserable life. In Hollywood, problems with cocaine and alcohol are so commonplace that the transgression is tantamount to not paying your taxes. It’s one thing to do lines with Catherine Zeta Jones at the Vanity Fair Oscar party. It’s altogether different to seclude yourself in a dive motel under a fake name and shoot flap after flap of junk into your arm. Cocaine is glamorous. Heroin is anti-social, anti-Hollywood, anti-entertainment, anti-life.

I feel conflicted about using the internet to dig up material for this essay. I would be horrified if I died of an overdose and people who knew me and—not likely to happen to me, but it’s everywhere online with Hoffman—people who didn’t know me but knew my face, were describing my appearance at an airport, a restaurant, an NA meeting. But The Atlantic on February 6, 2014 already published an article discussing how ethically reprehensible certain disclosures floating around the internet were, specifically The New York Times quoting someone from Hoffman’s Narcotics Anonymous home-group, so I figure if it’s already been addressed and nothing can be done to undo the salacious carnival of gossip that flooded the internet after his death, I’d be holding myself to a higher moral standard than I know myself to be capable of in not revisiting some of that material.

Narcotics Anonymous is the well-known little brother of Alcoholics Anonymous. Narcotics Anonymous is sort of the catch-all, and therefore best of all, 12-step meetings, in that they admit alcohol is a drug, shopping, sex—and we’re free to discuss anything we’re addicted to, because in truth anything can have a narcotizing effect if handled a certain way. Having been to at least a thousand meetings myself, I’ve never once been told that the anonymity of the addict is no longer sacrosanct once they’ve died, so I was disturbed to read the following, and feel somehow traitorous in repeating it—however, NA and AA are cults, as much as most people in the “The Fellowship” (cult sounding?) would hate me for saying so. Cults are spooky and therefore should be monitored. I feel an allegiance and fidelity to people I know personally from 12-step meetings, but I don’t feel that allegiance to The Fellowship itself. This minor betrayal combined with other sad disclosures online, however, serve to demonstrate the democratizing effects of addiction.

As is standard at the beginning of any NA meeting, members are asked to state how much clean time they have. According to the unethical snitch from his regular West Village meeting, in December Hoffman said “I am counting days.” This quote is followed ironically by the line, “according to a person at the meeting who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the group’s rules.”  After that—“He raised his hand and he said his name and he said he had 28 days or 30 days sober,” the person said. Mr. Hoffman was clean-shaven and well-dressed. “He looked great, he looked totally, totally normal.”  As I’ve often encountered in the program the rules apply only when they serve to make the addict using them feel comfortable. Otherwise gossip is the norm. I’ve been outed on the street as a member of NA. Outing myself in published writing has, amongst other benefits, served to help me not give a shit if someone else discloses who and what I am. Addicts will always be addicts, and unless they’ve reached some level of spiritual transcendence, will typically still crave attention and manipulate or use others if it provides them with even five seconds of something that resembles dopamine. I am not excluding myself as an addict outing himself in published writing that will garner attention. I have not reached spiritual transcendence.

Hoffman died “alone in his apartment” (my dad died “alone in his apartment,” my friends G___ and C___ “alone in their apartments,” God knows I’ve spent years “alone in my apartment”) on February 2, 2014. Between his “looking great and normal” and his death, the internet describes various sightings that demonstrate the rapid cadaver-izing effect heroin has on the appearance of a human being. The last proper sighting of Hoffman was at Sundance, where he was attending the premiere of the aforementioned A Most Wanted Man. Photos online show the grey skin and subcutaneous-seeming abrasions of an opiate addict riding the death drive. A magazine publisher, not recognizing the actor, asked him what he did, to which Hoffman replied, taking off his hat to make himself more recognizable, “I’m a heroin addict.” People who realize they’re not coming back from their last relapse are notorious for making these kind of statements to strangers. They almost seem like cries for help, but in reality, as they’re often made to strangers, they seem more like sad declarations of an inwardly known inevitably.

David Katz,Hoffman’s best friend and the last person he contacted before dying, describes Hoffman telling him once that “addiction is when you do the thing you really, really most don’t want to be doing.” From experience I can say this is addiction in a perfectly self-aware sixteen-word statement. The night of his death Hoffman had texted Katz asking if he wanted to come over and watch the Knicks game. Katz was at a dinner and didn’t receive the text until it was too late, sending back replies to what was already a dead body. Katz says that Hoffman never used drugs in front of him, and this seems believable enough. Addicts are great compartmentalizers. They’re also often so full of shame that they’d rather a stranger see them using than someone who loves them. Katz felt that in reaching out to him to come over and watch basketball, Hoffman was trying desperately to not do that thing he really, really most didn’t want to be doing. Having been kicked out of his apartment by his partner, and possibly with no one else to turn to besides his sponsor (sponsors being useless when you’re relapsing because the first thing they’ll tell you is NOT to do the drugs you’re dying to do), Hoffman’s fate was sealed. His death that night was perhaps not certain, his continuing move towards death however was. In the December before he died, having recently relapsed, clean or perhaps not, Hoffman looked great and healthy, yet by February looked like a homeless person who was unconscious in public, telling strangers he was a junkie, and on the night of his death, was seen extracting twelve hundred dollars in four transactions at an ATM, two dope dealers wearing messenger bags accompanying him barely three blocks from his home, even closer to where he was supposed to pick up his children in the morning. If I’d seen Hoffman that night, grey and pallid, unconcerned with being spotted drunk, buying drugs off the street, experience would tell me that he had given up and would soon be dead. Speculation is that he bought dope that’s killing people in droves in British Columbia as I type this; heroin cut with Fentanyl, an opiate one hundred times more powerful than heroin. Even with the tolerance he was described as having, rather, particularly with the tolerance he was described as having, if his dope was cut with Fentanyl, he’d be consuming probably twelve times what would have been required for him to overdose.

What an actor though. And really, he was. As a CIA agent in Charlie Wilson’s War Hoffman had a few drinks, but primarily was a CIA agent. His performance was unimpeachable. The same can be said for films like The Big Lebowski, The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Ides of March, fuck, even Scent of a Woman (forever disturbing as a film title). He wasn’t someone who’d been pigeonholed like Jerry Orbach, who probably put in more hours as a cop than the last one to shoot an unarmed black person in America. Hoffman was as convincing as a political hack in The Ides of March as he was an alcoholic junkie in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead; as believable as a sycophantic butler in The Big Lebowski as he was a gambling addict in Owning Mahoney. Those not massive but still disproportionate number of films wherein Hoffman plays a character troubled by addiction are less explorations of a foreign body and experience but instead constant returns to depictions of the same self with minor adjustments. Some painters who were brilliant were also brilliant when they painted themselves. Edvard Munch, Pierre Bonnard. Self-portraiture as a genre is necessarily a project that charts decay. I saw that decay in Synecdoche, New York (where Hoffman’s character is literally decaying on screen, pieces of his face falling off) and in A Man Most Wanted. It mustn’t have been pleasant for him to watch those films, if he did. Knowing at 22 that he was ‘advanced’ as an addict fills me with empathy for Hoffman, because at 46 he most certainly would have known how completely fucked he was, while playing characters who were in his same boat. His expertise in those films is less laudable in terms of acting skill, but somehow more award-worthy and poignant because he was willing to expose that part of himself he was most ashamed of, that part of himself that he knew was dying.

Hoffman was either a brilliant actor, or an extremely reckless addict, or both. I can’t imagine anyone in The Fellowship encouraging a recovering heroin addict to take on a role where they lay in a bed and get injected with heroin. What all of this retrospection leads me to believe is that Hoffman, recognizing that his drug use would kill him if he did not stop, chose to not stop. If he did stop in his real life, he did not stop on film. And someone as self-aware as he seems to have been would most certainly have known that, as they say in The Fellowship, The Program: “if you hang around in a bar long enough, you’re gonna get drunk.” Hoffman early on decided to get drunk, maybe for the sake of art, maybe because he felt life sober to be untenable. The result is that we now have a great many brilliant portrayals to watch on film until the end of time.