Published on February 5th, 2014 | by Clint Davis
A Week of Painful Truth – Can We Separate Art From The Artist?
The past week has provided us several glaring reminders of the painful truth that the great artists we admire may not leave much to be admired off the page, screen, record or canvas. In a cathartic open letter posted by the New York Times, Dylan Farrow reopened the discussion on her adoptive father Woody Allen’s questionable past dealings with young girls–if Manhattan didn’t creep you out a bit, the start of his relationship with Soon-Yi certainly made you squirm. We will likely never have a definitive verdict on whether or not Allen did anything inappropriate to a 7-year-old Dylan, but accusations of that nature are often don’t require proof for some damage to be done in the public forum.
After the letter was released, I tweeted that it puts fans of Allen’s outstanding body of work in an awkward position–are we supposed to still like this guy’s films if he’s a child molester? Roman Polanski, Phil Spector and OJ Simpson come to mind as other extremely gifted individuals with unspeakable scandals attached to their names. Is it okay for The Ghost Writer to be one of my favorite films, for me to blare Ronnie’s “Be My Baby”, or rock a #32 Buffalo Bills jersey in 2014? Most of the time, we have to learn to separate the art from the artist’s personal life or we’ll just end up disappointed, I mean they can’t all be Bono.
On Sunday, the wind was taken right out of me when reports that Philip Seymour Hoffman had died began dominating Twitter. Of course, I hoped it was yet another celebrity death hoax but after the news was confirmed, we were again forced to look that painful truth in the eyes. Hoffman, 46, was found alone in his New York City apartment with at least 50 baggies of heroin and allegedly, a needle in his arm. That’s the kind of end that befalls a desperate, broken person living on the street, not one of the great actors of the last 25 years.
Hoffman was still working as regularly as anyone in the business, with three films and a television series due for release in 2014–not to mention a central role in one of Hollywood’s most successful franchises of the 2010s. This is not the kind of guy that dies with a needle sticking out of his arm, right? A car or plane crash, sure, but not from a shot of street drugs.
He was one of the only actors that everyone seemed to respect and like in Hollywood, evident by the amount of heartfelt tributes being released about Hoffman in the wake of his passing. Hoffman was believable in every role I ever saw him in, without ever becoming a “leading man.”
Sure, his starring turn in Capote won him the Oscar but the guy was a total character actor. Like a chameleon, he seemed to change his entire mental makeup for each role–sometimes mere months apart. In 2011, he turned in two of his most varied roles, first as the conniving political strategist in The Ides of March–outshining George Clooney and Ryan Gosling at once–then as disgruntled Oakland A’s manager Art Howe in Moneyball, he was so subtle he almost blended into the scenery. This guy doesn’t die alone in his bathroom with a stash of smack, does he?
I was originally going to put together a list of my top five favorite Hoffman performances but as I went back through his list of credits, I realized it was impossible. I’ve probably got 14 films he appeared in on my shelf–obviously all favorites. He excelled at playing creeps and weirdos, the dregs of society: a sexual deviant in Happiness and Cold Mountain, a heartbreaking loner in Boogie Nights, a maniac running a phone sex scam out of his mattress store in Punch Drunk Love, a lecherous high school teacher in 25th Hour and he showed a knack for playing ruthless control freaks in Synecdoche, New York and The Master. Yet, how was this brilliant performer unable to exercise any control over the vices that would put him in the ground at a young age?
The point is, you never know what’s really going on backstage. What personal toll does it take to create something so rich in emotion, simply to wrap up and move on to the next project? And perhaps most uncomfortable for fans, is our admiration of a person’s work ultimately an endorsement of whatever they’re doing behind the scenes to make it happen?
Rest in Peace: Philip Seymour Hoffman, and thank you for the work.