These are all words that can be used to describe the actor who never phoned in even the smallest of parts and, according to his colleagues, had little tolerance for those who did. From the suicidal, gas-huffing widower in Love Liza to the intensely-focused, withdrawn gambler in Owning Mahoney, Mr. Hoffman had a gift for empathizing with his characters’ vulnerabilities and presenting them in a way that was both authentic and utterly haunting.
In a town that places rock-hard abs and a flawless complexion above discipline and talent, this anti-star “Everyman” proved that content and character are what matters, not vanity or appearance. And he did it by sheer force alone. Fueled by his discipline and relentless quest for perfection, Hoffman willed himself into becoming a leading man, first in 2005’s Capote, for which he received an Academy Award, then in Sydney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.
But Hoffman’s quest for perfection came with a price. Shortly after his affecting performance as “Willy Loman” in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Hoffman once again succumbed to the vicious, downward spiral of addiction. He told a friend that he’d been clean for so long—twenty-three years—that he could risk drinking again “in moderation”. A few months later, he was abusing prescription drugs and back to shooting heroin into his arm. A few months after that, he was back in rehab.
His friends and family were shocked. How could someone with twenty-three years sobriety suddenly decide to pick up and use again? To the outsider this seems unfathomable. But for the seasoned addict, who’s duked out a few rounds with this illness, it’s not just understandable…it’s expected. Regardless of how many years an addict has sober, we are all just one drink, one line, one hit away from the “pitiful and incomprehensible demoralization” of addiction. Someone with 30 years clean is just as susceptible to relapse, if not more so, than someone with only 30 days. Why?
One word: complacency—it’s an addict’s worst enemy. The delusion that we will somehow, someday be able to control our drinking or drugging is the great obsession of every abnormal user. Many pursue it into the gates of insanity and death. This delusion that we are like other people has to be smashed. The only other options are jails, institutions, and eventually death. Addiction is a progressive illness. Over any considerable period we get worse never better.
A counselor in rehab once explained it to me like this: “It doesn’t matter how long you been sober. You’re disease is doing a thousand push-ups every day, getting stronger and stronger, waiting, watching, praying for the moment you decide to pick back up again.” At the time this seemed like a silly characterization. It conjured images of some Max Cady-esque character doing push up after push up in front of a picture of Hitler.
Was my addiction really an entity of it’s own, separate from myself over which I had no control? It seemed preposterous. However, after nearly a decade of struggle and one hell of a vicious relapse back in November, I now fully appreciate this simple, yet powerful characterization. The old cliché that “you pick back up where you left off” couldn’t be more incorrect. In reality, you start off way worse and much deeper than where you left off. I’m sure Mr. Hoffman, if he were still here, could attest to this. Unfortunately, he’s not.
On the night of February 1st, Hoffman reportedly withdrew $1,200 in cash from a grocery store ATM, and gave it to two men, whom police suspect supplied him with heroin. The next morning, he was found dead with a needle in his arm.
What Hoffman leaves behind is a body of work unrivaled by any artist perhaps since Marlon Brando graced the silver screen. “He was the greatest of his generation and more,” says Cameron Crowe, who directed him in Almost Famous. “He was an actor’s actor.”
Indeed. Mr. Hoffman reminds me of what my acting teacher, Benjy Dobrin, used to say, which is that genius is not limited to the select few, but exists to a certain degree in each and everyone of us. You just have to be willing to work for it. It doesn’t matter how much talent you have. If you don’t have the discipline and willingness to work and suffer for your art then you will never advance artistically and professionally.
The trick, of course, is to set goals that are reasonable and attainable. By setting the bar so high, Hoffman guaranteed he would never be content with his accomplishments. Such is the plight of almost all addicts. We long lost the ability to do things in moderation. Whether it’s drinking, drugging, work, or recovery, we’re either “all in” or nothing at all. It’s this obsessiveness that drives us to the point of insanity and erodes away the relationships with the people we love. Of course, it also happens to be the driving force behind some of the greatest works of art, such as Hoffman’s beautiful moment in Capote below. Enjoy.