I saw Phil Hoffman three times up close in 2000. The first time from the third row when he and John C. Reilly took on Sam Shepard’s True West in top form at NYC’s Circle in the Square. The second was from a dinner table at Atlantic Theater’s 15th Anniversary gala at the Crystal Pavilion when he, John C. Reilly and Heavy D performed a deeply moving and highly memorable scene from Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues. The third was as I stepped out to cross 8th Avenue, gaze cast downtown for traffic. He whooshed past me on his bicycle, cruising the wrong way on a one-way street, grazing my arm with his forceful body. “Hey! Watch it, Phil!” I yelled. “Sorrrrry!” he called back over his shoulder. He was a part of the theatre scene in New York, my scene, too. I never knew him, except peripherally.
It’s part of the grieving process to try and make sense of what seems to be a senseless death. The internet is electric with such graspings right now — fans and haters alike both trying to fit Phil’s death by heroin overdose into a nice little box.
The classic head shaker is that Phil was one of them tortured artists. This one always pisses me off even though, technically, it is most likely true. He was tortured and he was an artist. But the mass assumption that one necessarily follows the other, and the inevitable conclusion that one cannot even be a creative artist without being tortured in some way flies in the face of multitudes of artists working hard to create balance in their lives every day. One friend posted that possibly, Phil’s “art provided a release from his darkness.” I responded with this:
I would go further and say that art is not a release from darkness, but does offer the artist, (and in this case, the addict), a catharsis that resembles a release from darkness. A temporary respite. Perhaps even some perspective. But it is NOT freedom.
In my opinion, the greatest service one can do for one’s own art (and one’s own life, for that matter) is to work on oneself constantly with professionals of mind-body-spirit. It’s the job of each of us, and greatest challenge in life, to be honest with ourselves about the healing work we ALL of us need to do to unlearn destructive patterns given us along the way by individuals — mostly well-meaning, loving or not, but most definitely human beings. The coping strategies my parents are probably not going to work in my life. Period.
I just need to learn to trust that part of me that KNOWS something needs working out. To not judge myself for recognizing it, but to embrace the discovery. And to take the steps toward healing. Making the call. Asking the questions. DOING THE WORK.
The very very best artist, though not without his or her very unique humanness, is able to create from a blank slate, drawing from all the colors of his or her past, wholeheartedly diving into all them, coming back, when it’s done, to a delicious equanimity.
Another asked himself in his post if he was angry that he died of an overdose, then answered, “Yes, I wish it weren’t so but he was a fallible human.” He was also a human being we didn’t know. At all. Aside from his forceful body of work. But those who were close to him, and that worked with him, knew his fallibility.
Todd Leopold, CNN, in “The Philip Seymour Hoffman we didn’t know,” wrote:
In an appreciation, New York magazine film critic David Edelstein recalled how Hoffman seemed to revel in the unpleasant aspects of his characters, something Edelstein noticed in 2005’s “Capote.” Hoffman apparently fought director Miller — a friend, mind you — to make Truman Capote more difficult, not less.
“Ever since then, I’ve been conscious of how much he went out of his way to make his characters unbenign,” wrote Edelstein. “It was central to his power as an actor, though I wonder if at times he didn’t confuse self-hatred for integrity.”
Addiction increasingly adds an element of dramatic tension to every interaction in an addict’s life. The addict slowly burns the bridges between themselves and every other human being who sees their potential, maintaining only the bridge between themselves and their beloved fix.
Another poster wrote, “The majority of us can go through a partying phase and then grow up, settle down, and put down the sauce.”
The complexity of addiction, and the way it changes the brain, is something those outside of addiction forget and everyone slowly exiting the addict’s life remember all too well and fight futilely against.
The Addicted Brain, July 2004 Harvard Mental Health Letter
In nature, rewards usually come only with effort and after a delay. Addictive drugs provide a shortcut. Each in its own way sets in motion a biological process that results in flooding the nucleus accumbens with dopamine. The pleasure is not serving survival or reproduction, and evolution has not provided our brains with an easy way to withstand the onslaught. In a person who becomes addicted through repeated use of a drug, overwhelmed receptor cells call for a shutdown. The natural capacity to produce dopamine in the reward system is reduced, while the need persists and the drug seems to be the only way to fulfill it. The brain is losing its access to other, less immediate and powerful sources of reward. Addicts may require constantly higher doses and a quicker passage into the brain. It’s as though the normal machinery of motivation is no longer functioning; they want the drug even when it no longer gives pleasure.
Addiction takes the spotlight. Once again.