Sunday, February 2, 2014

Phillip Seymour Hoffman: beyond good

From a news report on the death of actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman by heroin overdose:

At present it is not understood why the actor fell back into the habit, if there were any events in his personal life that were besieging the actor or if it was just a case of hedonistic pleasure uncontrolled? Interestingly many of the roles he portrayed were often that of conflicted characters caught in deep moral and existential crises, something one suspects were themes very close to the actor’s heart.

I don't know about that. Don't know about that at all. Hoffman was always a supporting player, a damn skilful one, but in that capacity couldn't draw too much attention to himself.

Then came Capote.

The bizarre thing was, there were two pictures about Truman Capote out that year (2006), both covering the same time and territory: his long investigation of the butchering of a rural family that led to his masterpiece, In Cold Blood. Very quickly, "that other Capote movie" (Infamous with Toby Jones) was largely forgotten, perhaps due to Jones' performance as an out-and-out caricature, a sadistic little munchkin more interested in posturing at parties than ferreting out the truth.

Hoffman, a tall man with scruffy blond hair, a broad unhandsome Anglo-Saxon face and an ungainly body, won. He won the Oscar. I remember it, I remember him ascending to the podium, and I remember exclaiming, "Yes!" He had nailed Capote, a man both brilliant and repulsive, his life an exercise in squandered talent and agonizingly prolonged, brutal self-destruction.

It's not that I found Hoffman particularly attractive as a person, because he was always pretty scraggly and looked like an unmade bed. But I knew that as an actor, he was beyond good. Now he's dead. I'm trying to take it in. No doubt what I'm writing right now, raw and unprocessed, isn't very good, but it has to be light-years better than the shit at the start of this post: At present it is not understood why the actor fell back into the habit, if there were any events in his personal life that were besieging the actor or if it was just a case of hedonistic pleasure uncontrolled?

Pleasure! Yes, they actually used the word "pleasure" to describe sticking a needle into your arm. The asshole who wrote this report either had never experienced the agony of withdrawal, the gut-sucking sensation that you will literally die if you don't get a hit, and soon, or had experienced it and was too much of a prick to admit it and would rather write off the howling desperation of addiction as "hedonistic pleasure".

NOBODY takes heroin at that level for "pleasure", "recreation", or anything else except survival. The amount needed just to feel "normal" keeps on escalating until it becomes impossible to feel anything but horrifying hollowness and despair. Since drug abuse is so drenched in shame in our culture, abuse leads to abuse, to try to drown that shame and keep it from consuming your soul.

No, I've never taken heroin - my poison was something much more prosaic (though also easier to obtain). But an addiction is an addiction is an addiction. I know this stuff better than I ever wanted to.

The most howlingly awful part of this story is the fact that Hoffman had been clean for 23 years, half his life. Those of us (I mean us, I mean me) who have struggled with addiction in any form know that we are NEVER completely safe, and that anything at all, even a celebratory event that causes us to take a tiny sip of champagne "because it can't hurt this once", can tip us over into the quicksand.

And it doesn't matter how long we've been sober or clean. Hoffman reportedly spent ten days in rehab (ten days, because everyone around him was telling him that that was long enough to detox so he could get back to the movie set in time). Barely time to 
cleanse the body, and no time at all to heal the soul.

The ironic thing is, I didn't even like Hoffman all that much, except for his acting, as he seemed somehow offputting, but now I "get it". And hardly anyone else seems to. Oh, he decided to indulge in a hedonistic pleasure! That needle pointed inward as surely as the barrel of a suicide-aimed gun.

Will we ever learn? No. The human condition makes me sick half the time, but I guess I am part of it. Think of Pete Seeger, people say to me. Think of Mandela, Pope Francis. Yes, and the billions of idiots and assholes who are raping and destroying the earth, pulling its green majesty right out from under us.

When one addict dies, especially an addict like this one, we all die a little. But when, when, when, when, when do we LEARN?