I am Philip Seymour Hoffman . . . Minus the Heroin


And minus the talent.

Man, that guy had talent. I re-watched a few of his movies (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Almost Famous, The Big Lebowski) over the last year as part of a screenwriting class I was taking and in every one, he was the actor who made the biggest impression on me.

On an emotional level, I related to every one of his characters, no matter how bizarre or troubled or disturbed they were, no matter how minor their part was to the main plot line. They always felt the most real. On the inside, I could tell, even if there was no mention of it, his characters were fighting the same demons I’m fighting, they were trying with whatever they had to find joy in a world that is often cruel.

Cruel especially to those who don’t fit the mold. Which, I dare say, is most of us. Even those who appear to be specimens of perfection. It’s a bit like the lottery ticket that promises to make you a fortune. Ninety-nine percent of the time, it’s better not to scratch the ticket; there’s more possibility of perfection if you bask in the light of what you imagine could be beneath the surface, instead of finding out what truly is.

What made Philip Seymour Hoffman such a great actor (in my humble opinion) is that he knew how to access that emptiness that we all carry around, and he knew how to put it out in the world in a believable way, through characters that on the surface seemed to be as different from one another as you and I are from each other and everybody else we know. His performances moved us because we could see the truth and the ugliness of who we all are, when we drop the facades, when we stop pretending that our appearances, what we choose to show to the world, what we polish and recreate in order to bypass criticism, is who we are at our core.

Nobody is as shiny and new as we portray ourselves to be. And if we are, yuck. Shiny and new lasts about two seconds, then it gets boring.

Yet, as a culture, we shame people who don’t fit, or at least work toward fitting, the image of perfection we hold up to be the model person. The image is some version of a physically attractive, financially successful, well-known, philanthropic person who doesn’t choose to turn to “evil” things because they have everything they need, because they have reached the level of perfection we all strive to reach.

Once they reach shiny and new, they should stay there, and not let anybody else know that they are still human, that they still suffer, that they still are searching for something to ease their pain, because then we’d have to question the whole model of perfection we’ve been promoting for so long.

It’s scary to see in ourselves that imperfect person who suffers and searches for anything to ease her pain; it’s even scarier to see the suffering and searching in a person we assume (because they have the wealth or the fame or the looks or the resume or any combination of these things) has it all. If they are “all that” and still feel those innately human things that make us want something more, something better, how do we, the ordinary Joes just trying to get by, have a chance at getting past our demons?

I want to scream every time I see or hear a comment about a celebrity who doesn’t deserve our sympathy because they put whatever trouble they’ve come into upon themselves. We put them up on a pedestal, expect them to behave like we believe an idol should behave, and ridicule and belittle them when they don’t live up to the image that we’ve created for those who reach that level of “perfection.”

I’m not justifying behavior that leads to mistreatment of self or others. I’m not even justifying the terrible choices that famous and not-so-famous people often make when they are not at peace with themselves. And I’m certainly not saying we should like, or worse, spend time with people who do things that make us uncomfortable or unhappy.

All I really want to say is that everybody deserves some degree of our empathy, especially those who make bad choices and suffer even more as a result. Criminals should be punished but we should also try to rehabilitate them. Addicts should be given the support they need to break their addictions. Humans should be treated humanely, with love.

I am Philip Seymour Hoffman minus the heroin and minus the talent.

I am human. I suffer. I try to ease the pain. I try to put something good back into the world, the things inside me that may help others. But in my lifetime, I have made bad decisions that may have caused others to suffer. I have made bad choices that have increased my own suffering. I have put people up on a pedestal and then disparaged them when they didn’t live up to my expectations. I am sure I will do those things again. Not deliberately. At times not even consciously. I’m not proud of it, but I’m not going to pretend I’ve somehow reached a level of perfection that I don’t believe is reachable.

Philip Seymour Hoffman used his talents to show us what most people look like on the inside and how despite all their best efforts, they often aren’t able to find the peace that would make their own lives easier. Or bearable.

For whatever reason, he wasn’t able to find the peace that would make his life more bearable. Rather than waste our time talking trash about him for his choices, for his drug use, why not use that time to continue our own search for peace and to honor a man who did a whole lot more than make a lot of money and become famous. He used his unique talents to give us a glimpse inside humanity, a race which includes his characters, all of us and a man full of promise who died this week allegedly from a heroin overdose.


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12 thoughts on “I am Philip Seymour Hoffman . . . Minus the Heroin

  1. Thanks for this post. My first experiences watching PSH on screen was The Talented Mr. Ripley. Didn’t know who he was or where he came from, but I remembered his face and his name, and was much more likely to watch a movie if PSH was in it.

    Sara, I agree, it was his humanity and his access to emptiness we all feel that made him so relatable. A little vulnerability goes a long way. On film, on the page, in our lives.

  2. This is one of those “Let any of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone…” moments. I can’t imagine what it took for him to display that level of vulnerability in public, let alone on-screen, and I can’t imagine what it’s like for his family now, having to deal with the criticism at such a time of sadness. I hope they’re insulated from it, and that all of them – Philip included – find peace.

    1. I also hope they are insulated from it, although that’s highly unlikely. The finding peace: that may happen. Hopefully it does.

  3. You’ve said it really well here. Tapping it the emptiness we all carry around, absolutely. If you see him as a young, slim beautiful young man (as in Bottle Rocket) you see what use he made later of his everyman body, too, treating it, ironically as a gift for making art, but not for himself. I’m grateful he left us all such an extraordinary body of work, deeply saddened also that there’ll be no more.

    1. I’m looking forward to digging into that extraordinary body of work. He’s an actor whose work will stand the test of time because his portrayals of the human condition are spot on. So, although he is dead, he lives on, and we can continue to treasure him through his work.

  4. Agree with what Liv said about “Let any of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone…”
    and it’s dangerous to be up on that pedestal. You always get knocked down.

    Thoughtful post, Sara.

  5. “Humans should be treated humanely, with love.” That about sums it up for me, Sara. Love this post. I’ll never understand why some people’s first reaction to tragedies like this is to make disparaging comments about a person’s life, a person they’ve never met. Every person has a story and that story should be honored and respected regardless of how it ends.

So what do you think?