On her oft-baffling Twitter feed, Joyce Carol Oates suggested that it is doubly depressing when a great artist dies of a drug overdose, because it suggests that mastery of art is not enough. She was referring to Philip Seymour Hoffman, who was found dead in his Greenwich Village apartment yesterday with a needle in his arm. Surely, playing both Brandt and Truman Capote must be enough. For anyone who ever wanted to act, just watching his roles sparked a renewed enthusiasm. Watching Philip Seymour Hoffman is a reason to live, so how could being Philip Seymour Hoffman not be enough?
I was in the same room as him twice, although the first one doesn’t count. When I was a senior in college, my friends and I drove to New York over spring break to see him in True West with John C. Reilly. It was the Matthew Warchus production where Hoffman and Reilly drew roles out of a hat each night, and I believe we saw Hoffman play Lee.
Obviously that was wrong, since Hoffman was the nerd, the insecure lump, and Reilly was the swaggering roughneck. But Hoffman played it terrifically—he bullied his brother and gradually fell prey to the same desperate insecurity that was Austin’s defining characteristic at the beginning of the play. It’s a difficult transition to pull off, and a merely talented actor would have conveyed it somberly and convincingly. Hoffman made it fun.
The other time I saw him was three years later, when he came to an opening-night party at PS 122 for a production connected to the Labyrinth Theatre. I told him that I liked his work and thought he was the best actor of his generation, which must have meant a lot coming from a 24 year-old. He was very gracious and extremely wasted, and after shaking my hand spent the next hour eating chicken wings as fast as he could.
It seems to me that Hoffman was a great actor and I was not because he felt things more. Maybe that’s superstition; maybe Hoffman was a great actor because he was exceptionally good at moving his face or noticing things that other people did with their voices and bodies. But watching him from the sound booth, where it was my job to ensure that the PA did not suddenly start playing Public Enemy and fart sounds instead of experimental jazz, I was struck by his vaguely sad exuberance. Wow, I thought, he fucking loves chicken wings.
Maybe that’s the same quality that makes you go nuts for heroin or the stammering repetitions in Brandt’s Lebowksi Achievers scene. Maybe Hoffman loved drugs and chicken wings for the same reason he was so good at acting: he loved experiences. A scripted performance, drugs and food are all ways to get a visceral, mostly-guaranteed experience. It’s a way to feel, particularly, and with roles and pills and chicken wings you basically know what you’re going to get.
It cannot have been easy to be Philip Seymour Hoffman. He was a fat-ish, froggy guy who spent his professional life around movie stars. He was an artist and apparent hedonist with two young children. If we buy the theory that great actors feel things more, Hoffman was almost certainly exposed to powerful and periodically painful feelings all the time. He should have just channeled that into great art, but instead he made great art and sometimes took drugs, which eventually killed him.
That’s not fair at all. If I ran things, his performance in Boogie Nights alone would make him immune to one overdose amount of heroin. His death is the kind of injustice that makes me wish I expressed things better, that I could transmute unfairness and disappointment into something beautiful and fun. It makes me wish I was Philip Seymour Hoffman, or that we had another one around.