Hugo Rifkind

If Philip Seymour Hoffman wasn’t happy, what hope is there for us?

It seems the only sane celebrities are politicians

8 February 2014

9:00 AM

8 February 2014

9:00 AM

Celebrity deaths have no decorum. From Elvis on his toilet to Whitney face down in her bathtub, their last moments sit alongside their songs, or films, or their drunken stumbles out of nightclubs. Kurt Cobain, my teenage idol, had been dead from a shotgun blast to the mouth for — what? Days? Hours, even? — before the newspapers started running photographs of his Converse-clad feet visible through the doorway of the shed in which he died. Fans would pass them around. Weird, really. If a favourite uncle dies in his bed, you don’t go asking your cousin for a Polaroid, do you?

Within a day of the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman this week, you could see a photograph of his bodybag leaving his New York apartment block, and read about him being found on a bathroom floor, syringe still in his arm. The Daily Mail had a supposedly tragic photograph of him asleep on an aeroplane a few days earlier (because only tragic junkies sleep on aeroplanes) and told us how his children had been playing at a playground nearby. The serious press, meanwhile, pretended to have loftier concerns. ‘Philip Seymour Hoffman had almost completed the Hunger Games shoot,’ reported the Guardian. So that’s all right, then.

For some reason, at least for me, this all felt even more invasive than usual. I didn’t know Hoffman as a human; I hadn’t ever interviewed him, nor even really ever given him much thought when I wasn’t watching him in a film. When I was, though, he was always a welcome face. I remember him first from Boogie Nights (1997), Paul Thomas Anderson’s fantastic depiction of the 1970s porn industry. He had a small part in that, but it was pivotal, because he was the only real human. All the other characters were fantastic, plastic and gymnastic; Moonies for the porn cult. He was a fat, nervous cameraman; quietly the only person who nobody would fuck. Faced with Hollywood, he was us. All his roles were a bit like this. He was our ambassador of normal in the land of the insanely hot. And despite having spent five years as a gossip columnist, I’d never gleaned much else.

I know more about him now, like we all do. Nearly everything I have learned has made me like him more. At the same time, though, it has made his death seem… I don’t know. Totemic of something awful. I mean, look, probably it’s totemic of nothing at all. We never really know these people unless we know them. We only get a working facsimile. His is of a man at the top of his game; working well, making films that were both successful and acclaimed, which is rare. Three little kids after 15 years of stable marriage. In his downtime, meanwhile, he’d work with a non-profit local theatre company, sometimes taking ticket stubs at the door.

It’s an old cliché that fame doesn’t bring contentment, and some stars wear that absence on their sleeves. Russell Crowe, say, might be one of the best actors of his or any generation, but once you learn that he’s a frustrated rock star his general misanthropy makes a whole lot more sense. Ricky Gervais, plainly, also isn’t happy being one of the funniest men alive, but wants to be Tom Cruise too. And Lord alone knows what Tom Cruise wants to be. Maybe Jesus. Plenty of others seem adrift in a culture that calls them ‘artists’ and knows they aren’t.

The upsetting puzzle of Hoffman, at least when one treats him like the simple, fictional character he truly wasn’t, is that none of that seems to be there. What more could this guy want? Where was the hole in his life that led to the hole in his arm? I make no apology, by the way, for regarding Hollywood success as the pinnacle of what success can mean. The film industry bestrides our culture like the King James Bible used to. Success at his level (at least from down here) seems absolute; with riches, fame, credibility on that level, what do you have left to prove? And don’t we live our lives, most of us, with a vast amount to prove? Struggling along under the impression that proving it and being content are one and the same?

Lives aren’t parables and addiction isn’t rationale. Drawing out any sort of theme is pat. Sometimes, though, when the golden gods of our culture crumble, it’s hard to think any other way. This is what makes Hoffman’s death upsetting, albeit vicariously so, for those of us who never knew him at all. What’s it all about, really, this bright-eyed life of toil and ambition, when one can live one that goes as well as his, and still leaves you dialling the smack dealer? Or to put it another way, if he wasn’t happy, what bloody hope is there for any of us?

A healthier kind of fame

Quickly, though, after all that. You know the only form of fame I can think of that doesn’t routinely churn out alcoholism, addiction and dysfunction by early middle age? Politics.

It’s worth thinking about that. I mean, sure, everybody can name a few. But it doesn’t seem the norm, does it? I wonder if that’s because it’s also the only form of fame that doesn’t come with adulation. Tell a man he’s brilliant every time he goes to work, and maybe he simply ends up needing a crutch to blot out the terror that one day the praise might stop. Tell him he’s rubbish, though, a charlatan, a moron, a back-stabbing, self-enriching, egotistical fraud, and perhaps the eventual silence comes as a blessed relief.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.

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  • Lincoln

    There are some heavy-duty assumptions in this article.

    First, that Hoffman wasn’t happy. Where’s the evidence? Oh, that he was doing heroin. Yet addiction is probably not caused by unhappiness. Both are more likely effects of a common cause. See, the unhappiness is in the come down, withdrawals, chemical tolerance, or attempts to quit. Just think of one of yours, with coffee or whatever. Are you unhappy simultaneously while drinking or smoking? Drug addiction is more likely an attempt to remain in or constantly return to a form of consciousness/metabolism that allows one to cope with society’s insane demands; regardless of the breaker, one is thought to be broken, hence a “fix”.

    Second, the author thinks the unhappiness was due to the fear that his fame would end. What? The author presumes addiction+unhappiness is tied to positive fame. Where there is negative fame instead, we would expect to find not addiction but its opposite, sobriety. Look at politicians, he says, negative fame and sobriety as we would expect. Great, well, hypotheses aside, we without either kind of fame are left wondering “Are we happy or not?” Another asks, “I’m addicted to cocaine. Where’s my fame?” Another sighs in relief, “Oh good Hoffman was insecure in his status. I don’t have such a status so I’m snug as a bug after-all.”

    • Lincoln: Happy people don’t take dangerous narcotics and drug themselves to death. A handy tip: no charge.

      • StephanieJCW

        Nonsense. Plenty of people take narcotics as they enjoy the high they bring.

        • tolpuddle1

          Drug users are divided between the thrill-seekers and those who use them as self-medication, a necessary prop in coping with life.

          And you can say that genuinely happy people aren’t thrill-seekers.

  • Raw England

    We all know – or should know – deep down, why White men and women are depressed, dying, committing suicide and suffering: Its due to the disgusting, evil, life-destroying pressures exerted on us by multiculturalism, Left wing rulers and immigration.

    • Terry Field

      Fear not, the bloody minded insanity does not extend far beyond England’s little footprint.

    • tolpuddle1

      There are other pressures as well – from a very ruthless, selfish, individualistic society, where neighbourliness is rare, a society where you’re on your own, surrounded by people who are always ready to criticise or condemn you, but never ready to help you.

      A secular, capitalist society in fact.

      • Raw England

        Oh, absolutely my friend. 100%. But you’ll find the things you have mentioned are all directly caused by the poisons I stated in my comment.

  • You know, Hugh, every night I sleep — my heart beats — in the precise location where my father-in-law died (we were given the in-laws’ house, by a quirk of fate, a year or so afterwards). I picked his death room as the temporary bedroom while work was to be done on the proper one, and by now we feel that where we are may in fact be better (a bedroom should be dark, aired, cosy, silent). Not only that, but I was the one that was with him when he took his last breaths. I was on the phone with 999, knowing it was all futile — and given the awfulness of his disease (Lou Gehrig’s), an early demise was the best escape for him — and pumped his lifeless body with what little weight I have until the ambulance arrived. (Not really what I wanted to be doing of a sunny morning, but I could hardly ask his son or widow, could I?)

    Death happens. Irrationally, we all fear it. I’m interested in this planet, but in some ways I can’t stand the place. I used to think that children demeaned themselves by trying to excuse their barbarianism with ‘I didn’t ask to be born!’. But the fact is, they didn’t. My own attachment to life is entirely contingent. And the question of the fact of existence itself, so full of pain, is always: Why?

  • Terry Field

    Why should one care in the slightest if a ‘celebrated’ media type ends it all with drugs.
    Who cares?
    And why?

  • tolpuddle1

    The article poses a fair question.

    For most people in the world, the answer is religious faith. Little in this world can be relied on; nothing in this world lasts.