When Life Imitates Art—a Cautionary Tale

The death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman at age forty-six from a heroin overdose early last month (Feb. 2) has sent the usual shock waves through the highly publicized stage and screen worlds of Hollywood and New York.  And while it was hardly the first time a life was lost to heroin addiction among the glitterati, it happened this time around to someone singularly gifted in the performing arts.  Here was a star whose nimbus clearly outshone all the others.

“What have we been robbed of, by his death?” asked Anthony Lane in a glowing remembrance in The New Yorker (Feb. 17 & 24).  “Not so much a movie star, I think, as somebody who took our dramatic taxonomy … and threw it away.  Leading man, character actor, supporting player: really, who gives a damn?  Either you hold an audience, so tight that it feels lashed to the seats, or you don’t.”

He was, in short, an absolutely mesmerizing presence.  We must think of him, says Lane, who, in several thousand words of tribute insistently urges us to do so, in sheer titanic terms.  “You stare at the bulk and blaze of him, and you think, That’s gone?  Those other lives that he had yet to create and flesh out, in all their intensity—when do we get to see those?  Never, never, never, never, never,” he writes, repeating the word as often as King Lear did when announcing his own end.  “Just enjoy what we had of him,” he concludes.  “As the kid said, ‘Look at me.’”

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That last bit, by the way, is a reference to maybe the first scripted sentence Hoffman ever spoke, back in 1991 on a “Law & Order” episode for TV, in which the character he played, a co-defendant in a rape case, explosively delivers the line to the chief rapist, spoken lest he forget what together they did.  And from that instant, Lane reminds us, until the sad discovery of his lifeless body with a syringe still sticking out from it in the bathroom of his Greenwich Village apartment, we could not take our eyes away.  “Philip Seymour Hoffman told us to look, and we did.”

But what was he looking at?  What held him?  The reports surrounding his death all testify to his great love for his family, a mother and three small children, ages ten, seven, and five, who must now face life without a father.  “They’re all he ever talked about on-set,” declared one admiring friend, who spoke of his great “warmth and sensitivity.”  Another friend, who had seen him not more than twenty-four hours before his death, described him as a fixture at the gym where he’d faithfully show up every Saturday for his son’s basketball practices.  “He was not a drop-off parent,” he assures us.  “He was committed to what his son was doing.”

So why would a guy so totally committed to his kids, a really bright and wonderful fellow, a family man, who struggled to stay clean, was surrounded by friends who loved and admired him, not to mention a career he had climbed to the very summit of—why would someone with a life overflowing with such promise and success end up alone and dead amid fifty or more bags of heroin?  Especially since, as everyone knows, heroin will sooner or later kill you?  This last point, incidentally, was given special emphasis by Aaron Sorkin, who, in a brief tribute in Time magazine (Feb. 17), fiercely insists that it is never an overdose of heroin that kills anyone.  Rather it is the drug itself that does one in.  “We should stop implying that if he had just taken the proper amount, everything would have been fine.”

Meanwhile, the explanation, freely and frequently dispensed by all who knew him, which is that he just couldn’t fight the demons any longer, can only go so far and, more to the point, offers zero consolation to a family completely devastated by the wretched circumstances of his death.  Besides, what does demonology have to do with the human wreckage left in his wake?   Are we back in the seventies listening to Flip Wilson routines on how “the devil made me do it”?  And, in any case, how exactly do appeals to the Old Guy assuage the grief of those pitiful little children whose lives will never be the same again?  Do they not have a right to a dad not given to killing himself with drugs?  Does telling them their dad loved them despite having just blindsided them with news of an obscene and wholly unnecessary extinction, lead to any sense of closure for them?  Far better perhaps never to have known such a father than to be saddled forever with a death as squalid and stupid as his was.

“He didn’t die because he was partying too hard or because he was depressed,” says Sorkin.  “He died because he was an addict on a day of the week with a y in it.”

Well, yes, that certainly tells us something.  But why did he choose to become an addict in the first place?  Is the human will so bound by appetite, so constricted by fate, that life leaves no room for any of us to maneuver at all?  Is the moral constitution so bereft of virtue that the least wind of temptation causes it to wither and die?  “From nature springs the terror of death,” Aquinas tells us.  “From grace springs courage.”  Well, what was it about this man’s life that caused the springs of grace to dry up, leaving him without even the courage to try and stay alive?

In an interview he gave back in 2011, Hoffman reflects on an earlier addiction—that of alcohol—which apparently he’d overcome (twenty years worth of sobriety is, by any measure, impressive).  But lest you think success in the one might have given him a leg-up in facing the other, think again.  “I had no interest in drinking in moderation,” he admits.  “And I still don’t.  Just because all that time’s passed doesn’t mean it was just a phase.  That’s who I am.”  Yes, and scarcely two years later he will trade the one for the other, succumbing to a serious heroin addiction following a bout with prescription drugs. Then, within that very same year, the self-fulfilling prophecy having grimly run its course, Hoffman will be dead.

“When I first heard about the lurid circumstances of Hoffman’s death,” writes Owen Gleiberman, whose cover story in Entertainment Weekly (February 14) furnishes a full six page splash, “I thought: My God, it sounds like a Philip Seymour Hoffman character.”  Indeed, it does.  And the only real question is which one, inasmuch as in all his parts he plays the same character, including even the heroin junkie in a 2007 film called “Before the Devil Knows Your Dead.”   Thus did poor Philip Seymour Hoffman portray in art the lost soul he’d become in life.  What unspeakable sadness for those little ones his blighted life has left behind.


  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

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