Actors help us to see our humanity.
They put on various masks and characters acting within the contexts of various life situations. The best of them guide us to a deeper human truth that allows us to understand ourselves better. When we understand ourselves better, the hope is that we will make better moral decisions and thus do our part to advance the moral evolution of humankind.
Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of the best and most important actors of our time, is dead, apparently from a heroin overdose. His death is a tragedy for all of us who have seen our humanity more accurately, more authentically because of his relentless struggle for truth. T.S. Eliot said: “Human beings cannot stand too much reality.” When we define truth as that which coheres with reality, we can see that human beings cannot stand too much truth.
But, we can tolerate the truth when it is clothed in characters that take us out of our everyday humanity performing at a distance from us either on stage or on the big screen. We can tolerate the truth when presented to us in characters that we at once recognize as us and hold at a distance as not us. We can tolerate the truth when even complicated, despicable characters come to life before our very eyes showing us a part of our complicated, despicable selves. We can tolerate the truth when told in fiction and fantasy and history and futuristic vision. We can tolerate the truth for an hour or two in the theater and at the movies. We can tolerate the truth when it is presented to us by an actor as skilled as Hoffman.
He was an actor one could trust. Whenever I saw his name associated with a film, I knew that his performance and the project as a whole would be worth my time and money. I knew that I would see something recognizable about the human condition no matter how far on the surface the character was from the particularities of my own existence. Hoffman’s skill as an actor raised a particular truth to universal proportions because of a dedication to honesty.
He breathed life into the words the writers place in his hands and gave us wisdom to remember. In the film “Almost Famous”, his character says: ‘You have to make your reputation on being honest and unmerciful.”
This was Hoffman’s reputation. Much of the commentary about his work emphasizes honesty, integrity and truth. He inhabited his characters, disappearing into the role whether it was a small part, a supporting role or the lead. He did not try to make us like them. He understood that human beings are a mix of competing elements and the struggle to just be our multifaceted selves is the work of living. His presence in a movie (I never saw him on stage) became an element that usually helped the story to congeal. In the film “A Late Quartet”, his character describes his job as second violin:
“That’s my part. Without me they would be a lonely, frustrated trio. Seriously, the second and first violin are not hierarchical. They’re just different roles. . . Well, Sometimes I get the melody, sometimes the baseline. I connect the first violin, which tends to be the soloist part, with the viola and the cello which flow right underneath the surface. Simply put, I pull it all together. That’s my job.”
This is an excellent description of Hoffman the actor. Whether playing the lead or a supporting role, he was not hierarchical. He was not too large or too small for the situation. He pulled it all together helping to tell a story behind the story.
And now he is gone. Suddenly, tragically, gone. We, his fans, are sad for his family and friends. And we are sad for ourselves. Let me speak only for myself when I say that I am also angry with him for leaving us this way, for apparently dying of a heroin overdose. What was he thinking? He has betrayed his art. He has betrayed his gift. He has betrayed us.
In the film “Ides of March”, Hoffman played Paul, the manager of a presidential campaign. When his media assistant, Steve, takes a meeting with the manager of the opposition campaign, his anger cannot be contained. He says: “It doesn’t matter what you thought. It matters what you did. It matters what you didn’t do.” Later, he says to Steve:
“No Steve you didn’t make a mistake. You made a choice. Why’d you make that choice? There’s only one thing I value in this world, and that’s loyalty. And without it you are nothing, and you have no one. And in politics. . . it’s the only currency you can count on.”
Hoffman spoke these words with such passion, with such conviction, with such authenticity that they continue to echo inside my brain. And now I am angry with him because he made a choice that was not loyal to us, his fans.
At the same time, I recognize that addiction is a disease. I know that there are times when other forces, other impulses, overwhelm our free will, and we wonder whether or not free will even exists. I also believe that artists owe their public no more than they are willing to give. As Hoffman says in a documentary about J.D. Salinger, one’s anonymity is a right. Hoffman was well aware of his addiction early in his life, and worked to remain clean and sober for more than twenty years. He told “60 Minutes” that he enjoyed drugs and alcohol, but he had gone into rehab because he was afraid for his life.
Why he started using again is a mystery, just as life and death are mysteries. What comes into the body when we take our first independent breath? Does the unique spirit/soul/breath that is us contain our gifts and graces, our loves and commitments, our greatness and mediocrity, our character and personality, our strengths and weaknesses, our addictions and disciplines? Further, where does the animating breath that sustains our living go when it leaves the body?
Philip Seymour Hoffman has left us a body of work that will continue to help us to see and to know ourselves. In the face of the mystery of life and death, in the midst of our sorrow at the loss of this great actor, we can be grateful for the years of his sobriety and for every wonderful moment he gave us.
Valerie Elverton Dixon is founder of JustPeaceTheory.com and author of “Just Peace Theory Book One: Spiritual Morality, Radical Love, and the Public Conversation.”