Death of a serious man

Ever since I heard about Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death a few days ago, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the one film of his that no tribute video seems to have featured — Synecdoche New York. Hoffman played a miserable theatre director who wins an amazing grant that allows him to write and direct the play of his dreams. Except his world is falling apart — his wife leaves him, taking their daughter away as his physical self starts to disintegrate too — and he decides to pour his soul into this one production. Battling his insecurities, fears, unhappiness, delusions and artistic mediocrity, he creates this other world where actors “perform 24X7”, offering the ultimate tribute to the mundane and in effect blurring the line between fantasy and fiction.

This is how I have always seen Hoffman — as a man perpetually dealing with his miseries. It didn’t take tabloid gossip for one to realise that he dealt with problems that drove him to extremes — his interviews and film performances seemed to scream out this honest truth. In film after film — Magnolia, Boogie Nights, Capote, Synecdoche, Jack Goes Boating, A Late Quartet, The Master — I saw how he gave himself up completely and reconstructed himself anew, laying his soul bare before us.

As Lancaster Dodd in The Master, he was powerful, almost terrifying, and equally warm and loving at different points in the film. But beneath all the concern you could always see a streak of fury or something menacing. In stark contrast, he also played Truman Capote, a meek and small man, a performance for which Hoffman won the Oscar. Only Hoffman could have played Capote, literally shrinking in size, appearing pudgier and physically diminutive, while also completely modifying his voice to suit the author’s piercing and childlike one. Or the derisively wry, yet comforting rock journalist Lester Bangs in Almost Famous, who advises the young William to not befriend rock stars and be “honest, and unmerciful” in his reviews.

That drugs enhanced his performance is an argument that makes little sense since Hoffman had been clean for nearly 23 years after he admitted to his alcohol and drug problem right after college. This recent relapse into alcohol and heroin abuse landed him in rehab again, following which he seems to have gone back to shooting up and drinking, rather indiscriminately leading to his death most likely by a drug overdose. He was discovered dead at his apartment on Sunday, with nearly 50 bags of heroin and a syringe sticking out of his arm.

Over the past few days, the internet has been buzzing with how Hoffman had none of the trappings of a celebrity. He roamed around his neighbourhood, looking dishevelled in crumpled and mismatched clothes, keeping to himself, puffing on his cigarette, chatting with his neighbours now and then. His neighbours have been leaving flowers by his door in Manhattan, many of whom he interacted with on a daily basis — the manager of a cafe nearby, a grocery store owner etc. Having lost such an unassuming actor, who was spectacular both as wicked villains and good-for-nothing sidekicks, his absence will be felt by the film industry as much as the fans that saw him walking about nonchalantly in their city.

It’s been terrible, learning of his death and remembering all the great characters he played. But what’s been the worst is this nagging feeling that I knew him, we knew him. He was never in the news like other Hollywood stars are — he even split with his long-time girlfriend recently but that didn’t quite shake the world like Miley Cyrus’ twerking did. And yet, despite only encountering him playing different people in films, he was so raw and real that as one gazed at him it felt like he saw you too.

For all the wonderful films he would done had he lived on, I only wish someone had communicated to him that pain never goes away but it does change, it does become bearable. I wish someone had asked him to sit awhile with that heavy and unbearable discomfort without succumbing to alcohol or drugs — just sit with it, letting it absorb him.

But then maybe he knew all this already. Maybe he understood happiness far better than any of us.

The article was first published in Newsyaps in August 2013. The website has since shut down.

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