Feeling angry at Philip Seymour Hoffman

The death of Cory Monteith, from a drug overdose, was sad. But the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman makes me angry. Monteith was a kid wrestling with addiction, no doubt exacerbated by an environment in which the opportunity for self destruction was ever present. Hoffman was an artist, and his death forecloses so many possibilities, roles never played, characters never created, ideas never expressed.

Worse, given his stature, are the parts that might have been written for him that may never be written at all. Great actors are both stewards and muses. They not only nurture and care for the character types that suit them, they summon previously unknown beings into existence by inspiring writers. Hoffman takes more than his talent to the grave; he takes a catalyst for other people’s creativity.

More than other artists — and writers, musicians, dancers and visual artists are also afflicted by addiction and suicidal behavior — when actors self-destruct, the implosion changes the way we think of their work. My favorite Hoffman role was in  “Synecdoche, New York,” in which he played a theater director who becomes increasingly obsessive about recreating the world, and his own existence, through art. Caden Cotard was a classic Hoffman role, introspective, troubled, restless and smart. Hoffman’s death doesn’t diminish his accomplishment in the film, but it does inflect his character’s inner life in ways I wish it wouldn’t.

It inevitably seems more miraculous when an actor summons a character from pure creative speculation, rather than  calling forth some aspect of himself in slightly disguised form. Now we will never know whence Caden Cotard came, and who he really was: a creation, or a projection?

Of course it isn’t charitable to feel angry at a man who was suffering from addiction. But if there is such a thing as artistic responsibility—a duty to art and art lovers, an unsought and often formidable burden—then Hoffman’s last act violated it. We can feel sorry for the man and angry at the artist simultaneously.

Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at the Post since 1999, first as Classical Music Critic, then as Culture Critic.
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