Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Philip Seymour Hoffman, R.I.P.

In the men's locker room on Monday afternoon at the health club I overheard this:

Member 1: Pretty sad about that actor, huh? That Hoffman guy?

Member 2: Well, frankly, I don't have a lot of sympathy for him. I mean, all that celebrity and money ... what's he need drugs for? He shoulda known  ...

By the way, when someone introduces a sentence with Well, frankly, what follows--no matter what the words actually are--is usually something dickish. In a phrase dictionary, well, frankly might be defined as this: Used to introduce other sentences that confirm what you already suspected--that the speaker is an asshole.

I loved Philip Seymour Hoffman's work. I think I first noticed him in the wonderful film Nobody's Fool in 1994. He played a small-town cop, one who wasn't too bright, who was far too impulsive for the job. And he was memorable--which you damn well better be if you're in scenes with Paul Newman (perhaps my favorite film actor of all). The photo shows Newman decking him after Hoffman discharged his weapon because Newman had driven his truck up on the sidewalk.

He was one of those actors who command your eyeballs. No matter who was on the screen with him, he was the one you noticed, even when he wasn't really saying or doing much of anything. There are performers like that. I had a bunch of them when I directed plays in public school for about thirty years. Often, there's no correlation between a kid's offstage and onstage charisma. Very "ordinary" kids out in the school hallways somehow become luminous themselves when the stage lights come up ...  It's just the damnedest thing ...

I just checked the IMDB and counted: I saw twenty-two of Hoffman's films after Nobody's Fool--not all of his films, but most. What a talent. And remember the raves he got last year for his Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman on Broadway?

So, yes, he was famous; yes, he was probably wealthy. But those are not factors in addiction, are they? Addictions ignore gender, age, race, religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and just about every other category we've thought up for human beings. Addictions care about only one thing: feeding themselves. And they are ferociously difficult to battle to a draw (defeat is impossible; ties are wins for the addicted).

So when I hear someone say something like that guy said on Monday afternoon, I think two things immediately: (1) The speaker is a Dick; (2) the speaker has no imagination whatsoever.

I've written about this before--about the disappearance of imagination in our public discourse. It is a quality we need so desperately in a democracy--and, sadly, it's a quality that seems ever more absent in our recent dialogues--political and otherwise. (Why are we so quick to condemn, to judge? So slow to imagine what it would be like to be the person we're judging? What happened to the old walk a mile in my shoes?)

If you look at someone like Philip Seymour Hoffman, and all you see are celebrity and money, then you're not seeing anything of consequence. You need to see a human being, one with a set of strengths (his were immense) and weaknesses (ditto, apparently)--just like the rest of us. You need to imagine what his demons might be--and how powerful they were--and how no one wants to be an addict.

Sometimes our strengths characterize our lives; sometimes they don't. Sure, we do courageous things, intelligent ones, compassionate and imaginative ones. But we also behave in ways that are stupid, cruel, self-destructive, insensitive, whatever. And doing so proves one thing: We're human. We're flawed and fallible and very near hopeless some of the time.

I always think at such times of Young Goodman Brown, the eponymous character in Hawthorne's story. Over the course of a long night he learns about the sins of all his neighbors--even the pious ones (especially the pious ones)--and he just can not forgive them. (He can't imagine being human, really.) And Hawthorne's last words in that tale tell it all (Link to complete story):

And when he had lived long, and was borne to his grave, a hoary corpse, followed by Faith [his wife], an aged woman, and children and grand-children, a goodly procession, besides neighbors, not a few, they carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone; for his dying hour was gloom.

A failure to imagine--to forgive--will lead you straight into Misery says Hawthorne.

And so I'm sorry about the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman--sorry that he didn't give us a few more decades of insights into our own hearts--sorry that on one recent night his demon was just a little too strong for him. Sorry, too, that some of us (many of us?) who are unaddicted feel more judgmental and superior than grateful and empathetic.

I don't know anyone, really, who, looking in an honest mirror, cannot see Philip Seymour Hoffman looking back at him, or her. All it takes is a little imagination.

1 comment:

  1. He was so good at playing the character you watch with revulsion and fascination
    ---like molester priest in Doubt.