“Well, I think everyone struggles with self-love.”
— Philip Seymour Hoffman —
It’s New Year’s Eve 1979 and everyone at the party is high on drugs and alcohol. Scotty calls Dirk outside to show him his new red Datsun ‘sports car’ — which really is second-hand and freshly repainted in an attempt to copy Dirk’s “Competition Orange” ’77 Corvette.
Dirk pretends to be impressed but struggles to be sincere. A very proud and smitten Scotty nervously soaks up Dirk’s feigned flattery. Overcome by his infatuation he clumsily grabs Dirk and plants a kiss on his mouth. Dirk freaks out and pushes Scotty away… Scotty perseveres desperately and begs Dirk for a kiss. “I want to know if you like me?”… “Can I kiss you on the mouth?”… “Please let me.”
Dirk proclaims that he is not gay and leaves a humiliated Scotty outside and heads back into the house. Degraded and embarrassed Scotty gets behind the wheel of his Datsun and repeatedly says, “Idiot. I’m an idiot. I’m a fucking idiot,” over and over and over again, sobbing through angry, bitter tears…
Scotty’s rejection is the kind that terrifies every gay man — falling in love with a straight guy. It fuels our sadness, need to belong and deepest yearning to be loved, and it perfectly blends with our self-hatred.
Philip Seymour Hoffman nailed his portrayal of Scotty in the 1997 film ‘Boogie Nights’ on the head… and having done so at a time when very few other straight actors would’ve considered a role like that, made his accomplishment so much greater. In fact, I don’t think there is a single character who Hoffman brought to life without brave depth and Kafkaesque nuance. He had the emphatic ability to hold up a mirror to something that actors, even great ones, rarely have the nerve, skill and experience to reveal: the cathartic and humbling private pain of an ordinary person. And he did it with the subtlety only possible when you’ve visited those depths of despair yourself.
Recently, I heard someone say “he [Hoffman] was the patron saint for the anguished fool”. Indeed, he showed no contempt for the flaws he found in his characters. In Todd Solondz’s film Happiness (1998) he plays Allen, a social degenerate who finds sexual release by making obscene phone calls. Normally, characters like Allen are scoffed at with deprecation, but Hoffman took this hopeless depraved outcast and found something very endearing in him. Allen in Happiness was yet another heroic and committed performance… like all of Hoffman’s character portrayals throughout his acting career, spanning over 23 years. His Oscar-winning performance in Capote is regarded as his grown and glory by many. However, my favourites include Rusty (Flawless), Phil Parma (Magnolia), Dean Trumbell (Punch-Drunk Love), Henry (Strangers with Candy) and Andy (Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead).
We were at a bar in Hampstead on Sunday evening when a friend announced: “Guys I’m sorry to say, they found Phillip Seymour Hoffman dead in his apartment… They think it was a drug overdose.” When I heard the news, my first thought was “Ouch that hurts.”
It did hurt and it still does — another inspirational and talented artist dying from a drug overdose. As expected, in the aftermath, media headlines are selling us the tragedy, drama and exaggerated seedy details of his death… Fifty (or was it 70) bags of heroin by his side on the bathroom floor with a needle still stuck in his arm. It’s Marilyn Monroe all over again.
I’ll say it again. It hurts… but far less than what his family and children are suffering. There is no comparison here. Hoffman’s family are the ones that knew him intimately — his demons, his pain and his drug addiction. They are the ones who now must pick up the pieces with the aching knowledge that someone they loved dearly lost the battle against a mercurial beast: His dark side.
I recognise the battle, the temporary triumph, the maddening pain and the ultimate defeat.
There is a devil and a demon inside all of us — the bullied child struggling to be a confident adult, the pretty girl who thinks she is ugly, the mother who feels inadequate, the husband ashamed of his impotence, the overweight girl comfort-eating because she feels unlovable, the scrawny teenage boy taking steroids to look more masculine… we all have an inner voice than tells us we are inadequate on some level.
We are all vulnerable. We’ve all experienced a cliff-hanger moment of despair when we said to ourselves: “Idiot. I’m an idiot. I’m a fucking idiot.”
We numb those moments. Deep down we all know we have habits and behaviours that we employ to comfort us and to help us escape. Without these crutches we feel helpless. Addiction is a very human thing and it manifests in many ways — drugs, sex, pornography, relationship hopscotching (love addiction), the internet and social media, antidepressants and other prescription drugs, religion, nicotine, caffeine, alcohol, shopping, obsessive exercising, gambling, over-eating, relentless dieting, working, travelling… there is a vice to numb every shade and hue of human pain. When we cut right to the bone, addiction (and addictive behaviour) is the real elephant in the room… more so than mental illness.
So yes, it hurts to be reminded of this uncomfortable truth by the death of a man who seemed to have known everything about being vulnerable and being human… and yet he was not strong enough to carry his own weight. He slipped. He crumbled. He lost control… like many of us do. There is no shame in that. The only tragedy is that we seem to be unable to talk about it.
In the past few days I’ve been listening a lot to the song ‘Say Something’ by Great Big World. These lyrics, for some reason, make me think of Hoffman in his last moments:
“I’ll be the one, if you want me to
Anywhere I would’ve followed you
Say something, I’m giving up on you
And I am feeling so small
It was over my head
I know nothing at all
And I will stumble and fall
I’m still learning to love
Just starting to crawl”
Perhaps Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death is a final holding up of the mirror for us to recognise our flawed humanity in the private pain of this extraordinary man.
Images: 1. Phillip Seymour Hoffman – Unknown
2. Phillip Seymour Hoffman – Victoria Will, taken at Sundance Festival 2014
Text: FR Lubbe, Little Red Shoes