“He was very much an actor’s actor.” Well, there’s no denying this oft-said platitude from the last few hours, but Philip Seymour Hoffman was so much more than that. Being an actor myself, my social-networking feeds are filled with my fellows, and yet the outpouring of respect and sadness at his tragic death yesterday from an apparent drug overdose has come from all sections. He had the ability to enthral all who watched him, and, if he is to be reduced in headlines and obituaries to “an actor’s actor”, than it should be noted that he is that because he excelled in the profession, and that his achievements in his craft were inspirational to others who employ it.
Meryl Streep, who acted opposite PSH in the intelligent and gripping Doubt (d. John Patrick Shanley, 2008), described him as “fearless”. Fear is the great barrier to art. It is the feeling that keeps pages blank on writers’ desks, and keeps beautiful voices silent when the music starts. When it came to his craft, it seems clear that PSH was fearless: fearless in his search for the truth of his characters, fearless in his self-exposure, and fearless in his honesty.
This unrestrained courage, though, did not manifest itself in the histrionics that many confuse with honesty. Hoffman’s voice was the whisper in the storm. There was always a sense of something incredibly torrid raging beneath the surface, and we were being shown it with the slightest mannerism, or flicker of the eyes, or tremor in the voice. This quality was gripping – mesmeric – and was apparent in everything he did, whether it was his considerable arthouse work, or his thoroughly enjoyable and effective contributions to big blockbusters. His recent appearance in the second film of The Hunger Games was a mark of this, as he quietly suggested a calculated air to his crucial character of Plutarch Heavensbee.
His was a talent of awesome rarity, honed and trained, and then focussed by himself every time he took to the stage or stood in front of the camera. Every actor knows how hard it is to deliver just one good performance. Hoffman never failed to deliver anything less. How tragic then that he died so terribly young. At the age of 46, one suspects that he may not even yet have been at the midpoint of his career. One can now only imagine what he would have gone on to do.
He leaves behind a body of work that assures him a place in the pantheon of greats, and yet the circumstances of his death – apparently an accidental overdose of heroine – seem to highlight a deep struggle within himself. He had recently relapsed into substance abuse, a condition he had apparently fought for all of his adult life, and his friends have spoken of someone who wrestled deeply with himself. His own words in a Guardian interview from 2011 now have an eerie resonance:
“It’s a real struggle to connect. When I was younger I really wanted to explore, you know, sexuality, and having to connect to people and how hard that is and how inadequate we all feel. … I think everyone struggles with self-love. I think that's pretty much the human condition, you know, waking up and trying to live your day in a way that you can go to sleep and feel OK about yourself. When I was younger I wanted to really show what it meant to have such doubt about yourself, such fear. … It's not so much self-loathing as fear. You're just scared to venture out. … I had insecurities and fears like everybody does, and I got over it. But I was interested in the parts of me that struggled with those things."
As should be clear from how he was viewed, it seems faintly extraordinary that he should have had these struggles, and yet it is painfully believable. The fearless artist was in fact consumed by fear.
There was some consternation from certain individuals about the level of prominence given to his death by the news programmes last night, perhaps bemoaning our celebrity culture. Let us be clear: though Hoffman was famous, he should not be labelled with that increasingly pejorative term of celebrity. He was much more than that. He was a beautiful artist whose work enriched the lives of many.
Yet there is one greater reason why the awful tale of his death must be told. It runs deeper than the necessary warnings about addiction. It is about insecurity. It is about the countless people who struggle with that every day. We all have insecurities, but for some the internal fight with them are much more harmful than it appears to be for others. This fact needs to be acknowledged.
The story is about those who feel alone, lacking in self-worth. What you choose to draw from it is your affair, but for me the sad story of this genuinely inspirational figure at least has the power to tell all who struggle that they are not alone. Quite the opposite, they are in very good company, and that the love and sadness displayed after this tragic loss shows that there are those who crave to help.