Philip Seymour Hoffman: The Death of an Artist
An Angel Orensanz Foundation for the Arts Special Report – “Artists. We. LOVE.” – Philip Seymour Hoffman
From the National Public Radio’s interview with actor Philip Seymour Hoffman in 2012. (On playing Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman)
“It’s never that simple – why we’re here, what are we doing? Family, work, friends, hopes, dreams, careers… What is happiness? What is success? What does it mean? Is it important? How do you get it? To be loved, I think, is the thing that gets you up in the morning.”
With great sadness and respect today I present our newest edition of “Artists. We. LOVE.” at the Angel Orensanz Foundation for the Arts in New York City. On behalf of the Foundation, I would like to commemorate and pay homage to the life and work of a truly gifted actor of stage and screen: Philip Seymour Hoffman.
The actor passed away yesterday morning of an apparent drug overdose in his West Village office apartment. He was forty-six years old.
His apartment is mere blocks away from New York University, where Hoffman graduated from the Tisch School of the Arts with a BFA in 1989. Recently, the actor actively participated in an on-going petition against the University’s $6 billion “Sexton Plan” proposal to expand the institution in 2031, potentially devastating the historical district of New York’s Greenwich Village. Hoffman was joined by celebrities such as Padma Lakshmi, Philip Glass, and Fran Lebowitz in a partnership with the NYU Faculty Against the Sexton Plan to hold a celebrity auction with the goal of raising money for opposing legal action.
One of the items in the celebrity auction included a two-hour acting lesson with Philip Seymour Hoffman.
If you’ve not been familiar with the actor’s portfolio of work over the last two decades, I’ll reiterate the sort of list you can find in the New York Times or the Post to summarize Hoffman’s career.
The actor’s first role was as a defendant on the television program Law and Order in 1991, after which he made his film debut in the Al Pacino film Scent of a Woman in 1992. Hoffman’s major roles have included Brandt in The Big Lebowski (1998) and Truman Capote in Capote (2005), for which he won the Academy Award. He portrayed the villainous Owen Davian in Mission Impossible: III (2006), Father Brendan Flynn in Doubt (2008), as well as Lancaster Dodd in The Master (2012) directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, with whom the actor collaborated for five out of the director’s six films to date.
Philip Seymour Hoffman’s extensive theatrical background includes performances in the 2000 revival of Sam Shepard’s True West and the 2003 revival of Eugene O’Neill’s A Long Day’s Journey into Night. Most recently, Hoffman tackled the iconic role of Willy Loman in the Broadway production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman directed by Mike Nichols. For all three performances, Hoffman was nominated for the theatre’s prestigious Tony Award. Hoffman had just seven days of filming remaining for his current work with the Hunger Games franchise. The production company plans to release the two final installments (Mockingjay: Part 1 and Mockingjay: Part 2) with the actor’s completed work posthumously in 2014 and 2015 respectively. He portrayed the character of Plutarch Heavensbee in the film adaptation of author Suzanne Collins’ YA trilogy.
It’s a heavy thing to outline the life achievements of a man after he’s gone, as though the catalogue is intended to deepen the impact of his loss in some way. Perhaps, with celebrity culture being as intimate and as removed as it is today, we simply need something to say to illustrate our connection with a man we never knew but loved from our places in the darkened seats of a cinema house.
Not to say that our relationship as audience members with the deceased has no meaning or depth: with the onslaught of celebrity deaths in the past year(s), the emotional outcry of a grieving public is evidence enough of this depth of feeling. The truth is, it was a relationship – a tenuous, symbiotic interchange between the artist and the public that has been a pillar of our culture for centuries. Every artist in the industry relies upon his audience to survive. Money and box office revenue aside, what would Death of a Salesman be without living, breathing souls to witness the art of actors bringing characters to life? A film played upon an enormous screen in an empty house is nothing more than a multi-million dollar light show with no resonance. You need hearts and minds for the kind of resonance that Hoffman triggered in his work.
Money, fame, status – they’re just the side effects. And not necessarily positive ones, at that.
So, no, we didn’t know the late Mr. Hoffman. We didn’t know the man. We didn’t share in his life and his personal experiences. Like many of my friends, I posted a few words on Facebook in memory of the actor. My heart twists when I think of the family he leaves behind, of the three young children and their mom, of all the fellow actors and directors who had the opportunity to create art with this man, of friends who loved him.
Of everyone who understands death a little too well now, and for whom life will never be the same.
This is not celebrity-dom. This is life and death. This is universal. We stand up in a service for the loved ones we lose and speak of the sanctity of their memory. We press our hands to the hands of grieving family members who will immortalize the deceased through their love. And the death of famous members of our society are not exempt to this ritual. But perhaps we must acknowledge that artists like Philip Seymour Hoffman have a second, more public, more emblematic death mourned by audiences of strangers who followed and supported his career.
The death of the man coincides with the death of the artist, and we knew the artist. We mourn the artist. And we celebrate in the immortality that our relationship as the public has given the artist. For as long as there are screens and projectors and audiences, the work lives on – captured and preserved for the sake of generations to come.