Bad Dreams…

The quality of our lives has an interesting rhythm. We strive to make our lives better, lighter, and then at certain times we feel haunted and pulled down by darkness.

Certainly the horribly untimely death of Philip Seymour Hoffman this weekend had—and still has—the feeling of a bad dream. He’d talked explicitly about his addiction problems, but was always seen as someone who had beaten them LONG ago. But no, it couldn’t be as simple as that. I think of his films and then I think of what his last weeks or his last day must have been like, and it all barely makes sense. On film he’s in control, a master of his art. The consummate professional. To think of him lying in a bathroom with a needle in his arm, in an apartment littered with bags of heroin, just has the quality of … a bad dream.

But he leaves behind a magnificent body of work. In fact, he was in so many films that I’ve only seen about half of them! I think I first saw him in Boogie Nights, where he seemed charmingly clueless and chubby and immature. Then, in Magnolia, a harsh and disturbing film, his male nurse character was incredibly strong and compassionate. I remember thinking then that he had an androgynous quality, a quality that transcended male or female.

In Talented Mr. Ripley he gelled for me. He played a character who ought to have been despicable, the snooty frat-boy chum of Jude Law, but he was so brilliantly alive and intelligent that you couldn’t imagine that death in the form of Matt Damon’s weak, chameleon-like Ripley could bring him down. I’ll always remember the scene on the boat where he mocks Ripley for peeking at Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow having sex in the cabin. Perhaps he enjoyed not playing the voyeuristic character for once!

He played it cold and disconnected, too, and his Truman in Capote was a disturbing mix of effeminate charm and cold calculation who ends up subtly betraying everyone, not just his longtime lover, but his childhood female friend too, and the murderous boys whose story he’s fixating on/exploiting. It’s a study in alienation. Yet the film was a magnificent success. He deserved the Oscar. I’m so glad he got one.

It is horrible to see someone that I admire, born in my year, go like that. But unlike Heath Ledger and Cory Monteith, who died young in what seem to have been accidental overdoses, I have the feeling that Hoffman was more ready to go. Certainly he would have known what he was risking, with so much heroin in his apartment. I don’t want to judge him for what he did; I don’t want to be angry at him. Public anger is almost beside the point. (His family gets to be angry. They should.) We also should not forget that Hoffman was the child of divorce and seems to have had barely any relationship with his father, growing up. It is terrible when people repeat the mistakes of the past, of the abandoning parent, but sometimes it seems only too likely that they will.

Let’s talk about his presence, though. Mick LaSalle, SF Chronicle film critic, wrote a beautiful and perceptive obituary for PSH, in which he said:

There are rare actors such as this – people that audiences want to look at, people audiences can’t help wanting to look at, even if they don’t quite know why.  In the case of Hoffman, his opacity was an odd gift – a quality present even in his throwaway performance, such as in “Hunger Games: Catching Fire.” With Hoffman, we never really knew what he was thinking – but we always understood that he was thinking, and that it was something interesting and mesmerizing and slightly out of reach.

The rest of the obituary can be read here. And rest in peace, Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Update: So this is probably the last image we will see of Philip Seymour Hoffman: an unnerving tintype (!) taken at the Sundance Film Festival, where he told a publisher who asked what he did, “I’m a heroin addict.” He was always honest.

About Gabriella West

Author of LGBT historical fiction and contemporary queer romance. Copyeditor/proofreader.
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