10 March 2014

PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN: It's not an act, we do need each other

by Dr Mark McConnell

I can’t quite remember the first film I saw him in it, but I do remember thinking “Who the heck is this guy?” Philip Seymour Hoffman kept cropping up in the strangest of places... or should I say, some of the most interesting films of the last 20 years. My personal favourites have been Magnolia; Owning Mahowny; Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead; Doubt; Synecdoche, New York; The Savages; and The Master. Each one challenging, thoughtful, disturbing, and revealing.

Hoffman acted in just under 60 films. He was in high demand but that did not mean he would take on work just for the fame or money. In an interview in 2003 in which he was described as “Hollywood’s hottest go-to guy”, he stated: “Sometimes it's hard to say no. Ultimately, if you stick to your guns, you have the career that you want. Don't get me wrong. I love a good payday and I'll do films for fun. But ultimately my main goal is to do good work. If it doesn't pay well, so be it.”

Doing good work was certainly something that he did. In a world of glitz and celebrity this is what made Hoffman stand out, and made his tragic death so devastating for so many of us. He was an artist who made any art that he was involved in more truthful and real. With my work colleagues, the morning after hearing of his death, we sat around our cups of coffee in silence and remembrance as if we had all lost a good friend.

Much has been written in the past few weeks since Hoffman’s tragic death at age 46 from a drug overdose. Three pieces have stood out for me. In Time magazine Aaron Sorkin, the screen writer (and another true artist of his trade who also happens to be a recovering drug addict), talked about a conversation in which Hoffman told him, “If one of us dies of an overdose, probably 10 people who were about to won’t.” For Sorkin, Hoffman meant that their deaths would make news and maybe scare someone clean. In that light Sorkin went on to say:

“Phil Hoffman, this kind, decent, magnificent, thunderous actor, who was never outwardly ‘right’ for any role but who completely dominated the real estate upon which every one of his characters walked, did not die from an overdose of heroin — he died from heroin. We should stop implying that if he’d just taken the proper amount then everything would have been fine.”

As a theology lecturer I’m always interested in the spiritual or theological dimensions. One article which has done the rounds is The Gospel According to Philip Seymour Hoffman, written by Father James Martin who was theological consultant for Doubt. Martin writes of Hoffman’s faith and admiration for Jesus. But more interestingly he talks about seeing Hoffman directing the 2005 stage play The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. Hoffman, says Martin, would direct actors the way that Jesus told parables, which can be thought of as “poetic explanations of concepts otherwise impossible to comprehend.” Stories carry meaning without having to be translated into concepts. So, when Hoffman was trying to communicate an emotion to be portrayed in a scene he would tell a story from his own life and then as “Did you ever have this experience?”. For Hoffman this approach was important. If there is too much direction, “the person becomes a sort of empty shell, and they end up performing in a way that’s not at all, well, spiritual.”

For me the most moving piece I came across was a year old article by Russell Brand on Heroin, Abstinence and Addiction in The Spectator. Even though Brand is “in recovery” and has not taken drugs or drunk alcohol for 10 years, he confesses that the last time he thought about taking heroin was “yesterday”. Heroin, says Brand, is a pain neutraliser which, with incredible efficiency, deals with the pain of reality (which is the real problem). The pull is enormous and overwhelming. In another article written after Hoffman’s death Brand makes the point that Hoffman, like all addicts, despite all the accolades, good friends, a loving family, would have heard the predominant voice that supersedes everything. This voice is the unrelenting echo of an unfulfillable void. The only solution is “don’t pick up a drink or drug, one day at a time.” But for that to happen, we need other people – support fellowship. It simply cannot be alone.

A couple of days after Hoffman’s death I was at The National concert at the Vector arena along with 5,000 other people joining in the joint confession in the chorus of the song Afraid of Everyone. Together we sang, “But I don’t have the drugs to sort; I don’t have the drugs to sort it out; sort it.”

If only we could practice this joint “fellowship” in our everyday lives. This, ideally, is what the church should be about.

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