Many people have already written about Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death. Every single article I read, from Alex Pappademas’ retrospective on Grantland to Aaron Sorkin’s very personal piece on Time.com, made me fully and deeply appreciate how truly talented and respected an individual Hoffman was. He was as gifted an actor as we’ve ever known, capable of truly losing himself in any character, no matter how hollow the script or small the part. Without even needing to discuss his Oscar worthy roles in films like “Capote”, “Magnolia”, and “The Master”, his talent was almost more evident in his less heralded films. He single-handedly made “Along Came Polly” not only watchable, but hilarious with his creation of the totally unaware Sandy Lyle character. In “The Talented Mr. Ripley”, Hoffman bullies his way into only 3 scenes, and yet comes away as possibly the most memorable character in the movie. Lastly, in J.J. Abrams
wandering and lost (no pun intended) Mission Impossible III, Hoffman creates a restrained evil that feels so real you almost believe he really exists. In fact, if there is one commonality in everyone of Hoffman’s performances it’s that you never feel like he’s playing a character – you truly feel as though he is that character. It’s not just a skill, or a talent, it’s pure creative genius. But with that genius, I wonder, does a sadness come as well?
There is a struggle that seems to accompany the gift of creativity and intelligence. A struggle to get out of their own head. It’s as though with a certain level of intelligence, often comes an inability to shutdown the mind and find peace. It is this inability to find peace that, at least I believe, leads so many of the world’s most brilliant creative minds seem to, at some point, battle addiction and/or mental disease. Have you ever been so consumed by a problem or a task or a creative project that, while you weren’t actively working on it, you couldn’t stop your mind from thinking about it? You can’t sleep, you can’t focus, you’re at a stop light, but rather than just idling slowly, your mind races like a car burning out it’s tires at the line. I imagine that’s what it’s like to be inside the head of one of these prodigious souls, like a mind that doesn’t know how to idle. That inability to slow down and find peace, can lead people to a variety of unhealthy and dangerous behaviors, from drug abuse, to obsessive compulsive behavior, to mental breakdown and even suicide. The question becomes why can people who are so smart, be unable to overcome their one fatal flaw? I think the answer lies in one of or a combination of the four following reasons:
First, awareness of a problem and the ability to deal with a problem are two totally different things. I do believe that the overwhelming majority of highly intelligent but troubled people, are aware of their own demons. They know what’s bothering them, but are totally ill-prepared to deal with it. Coping is a skill that needs to be learned. We are not born knowing how to handle every emotion and every problem, but through observation and guidance we develop our ability to cope with our feelings and thoughts. However, sometimes, we need a bit of extra guidance or personal attention to deal with problems that are more unique to us as an individual. John Nash, one of the most brilliant minds of the past century, was a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic. He heard voices, and had delusions. His problems dealing with these voices did not go away when he became aware of them, nor did they end when he began being medicated. His mental health problems, in fact, never really ceased to exist, Nash simply took control of them by learning how to ignore what he knew not to be real.
Hoffman, based on his openness in interviews about his problem with addiction, was likely very aware of his problems. He simply did not have the skills or ability to deal with them. He was trapped in his own mind. He was trapped alongside his demons, and rather then learn how to escape them, he tried to simply numb them. The only problem? Over time, our body adapts to the use of substances causing the need to use increased quantities to achieve the same dulled sense of pain. When this happens, like with Hoffman, the chance for an overdose is dangerously high.
The second cause of so many highly intelligent people’s downward mentally spiral, I believe, comes from the internal need to postulate, analyze, and/or create at all times. Often, even when solving a single problem or completing a work of art, they identify 3 new impulses they do not yet have an answer or outlet for. There is no sense of satisfaction or completion in finishing the first project, because in their mind those 3 newly identified problems have already taken precedent in their mind as being of the utmost importance and are also unfinished. Like how writers block can drive an author absolutely mad. They have the general idea for a story, but simply can’t get the words to flow. It is a maddening exercise when it’s a hobby, but when your entire life revolves around your ability to unlock complex or creative ideas from the deepest part of your mind it can be truly debilitating.
I may not be a genius of any sort, but I can definitely relate to those feelings. Since the news of Hoffman’s death became public on Sunday morning, I’ve wanted to write this article. However, I just couldn’t figure out what I wanted to say. I knew I wanted to discuss the larger relationship between Hoffman’s addiction and untimely death and the similar struggles of other great talents, ranging from Jimi Hendrix to Robert Downey Jr. to Alexander McQueen. However, unable to figure out exactly how I wanted to frame my thoughts, I haven’t been able to sleep. I can’t imagine being consumed by this desire to create and untangle my own thoughts, all day, every day. It would almost certainly wear me down mentally and emotionally. I say emotionally, because it is truly a helpless and deflating feeling to be unable to get out your thoughts. This transition from mentally taxed to emotionally worn down is again where the chance to slip into a depression can occur.
A slight variation on the previous thought, that I believe can truly wear down an artist or creative being, is the transition out of creative mode. We already discussed the idea that brilliant people rarely are able to complete a task without immediately being consumed by a new idea or project that was born out of the previous process. However, what happens during those times when the creative process has been so deep, so difficult and so personal that they are unable to transition out of it at all? Sometimes an actor or an artist has tapped into parts of themselves for a project that they can’t fully separate from after the film or work of art is complete. Other times, the end of project or work of art can leave an artist with an almost postpartum depression. We may think this sounds excessive or overly dramatic, but the overwhelming majority of great actors and artists will tell you that their is something obscenely personal that goes on during the creative process. In order to create great art you must be able to tap into different part of your own soul that the majority of people have no need to open up. Moving on from that process, truly stepping out of a character or away from a mindset that helped you create that art, is sometimes not nearly that easy. Supposedly, this is something that Heath Ledger experienced in his post-joker world. It’s not that he couldn’t stop being the “Joker”, but whatever personal aspects of his psyche he tapped into for that role, he was not able to totally distance himself from when the film was completed. It led him further down a path of depression and substance abuse as a way of medicating. He created great art, but at a price of his soul.
One would think that the rewards of being a great artist would outweigh all of this mental and emotional pain. However, for many artists and great minds success brings with it external pressures which only magnify the internal pressure they already carry with themselves at all times. Artists already have a problem detaching and moving forward. But, when an artist achieves success in their field, the public almost immediately demands more. Not only does the public demand more from the artist, but they also feel the obligation to judge every aspect of the art harshly, and personally. This pressure to not only create but to now meet the world’s expectations can lead artists to a variety of mental and emotional problems.
After completing “The Catcher and the Rye”, J.D. Salinger could simply not handle the attention or the pressure. He became a recluse, and refused to publish his works. His struggle with the attention that came with his success was so famous that it became the foundation of James Earl Jones character, Terrance Mann, in Field of Dreams. Other artists, like the band Oasis, handled the pressures of success in much more destructive manners. After a hugely successful debut album, they battled unrealistic expectations of the public to be the next “Beatles”. That pressure lead to internal battles over creative direction, drug use, and other self-destructive behavior. In the beginning, most artists, of all types, create as an outlet for their own ideas and emotions. However, after the public deems their work a success, they thank the artist by demanding more and at a higher standard, and immediately. If you’re already emotionally and mentally taxed by your own self-imposed expectations, imagine the feeling of having others repeatedly tell you that you MUST outdo your previous effort. It can leave you constantly feeling inadequate and insecure. Feelings which often are associated with depression and substance abuse.
A small aside to this point. I don’t think it’s coincidental that lesser talented but equally successful artists fall victim to this type of pressure as well. With success comes an overwhelming amount of pressure and very little structure or support. Reach a certain level of fame, and everyone feels entitled to judge and critique every aspect of your life, not just your artwork. Add this to the fact that, often, these celebrities end up with a circle of people who insulate them from the criticism by simply kissing their ass and/or enabling their behavior. I do not think this was the case with Hoffman or most adult artists, but I do think it has major relevance when discussing successful artists in general and their relationship with substance abuse. I think it becomes most aptly seen in younger stars who have not yet developed the ability to handle the circumstances of fame in any capacity. It’s not a coincidence that celebrities ranging from Macaulay Culkin to Lindsay Lohan to Justin Bieber seem to all lose control of themselves. Hollywood can breakdown even the most intelligent and well prepared adult, but a child with undeveloped coping skills and an unstable support system, they stand no chance. They seem to develop a “fuck you” type attitude as a way of protecting themselves, and they have something which enables them to live this out publicly.
The means are all the difference when it comes to the ability to escape. It’s partially money, but it’s also access to anything and everything. Successful artists of all forms usually have one thing in common, and that is the ability obtain whatever they want to dull the pain. Drugs, sex, possessions, partying, and even a circle of friends who refuse to challenge you are all at your finger tips when you’re successful and “cool”. Often the reason a celebrity can OD on heroin and a regular addict does not, is the ability to afford enough to kill themselves. It’s a sad truth, but it is, more times then not, the truth. Means can make all the difference.
Many people look at the money successful artists have as a reason to be happy. However, that doesn’t take into acknowledgement the mental state that exists within them that allowed them to become successful. All the things we’ve talked about up until this last reason are what makes it clear that money is by no means an answer or a finish line. The brilliant and the successful can’t just turn off their active mind because the world has given them what it deems to be the ultimate reward. Much like a boxer often doesn’t know how to put their gloves down, an artist doesn’t know how to shut off their mind. The money and fame simply gives them the ability to dull their mind – if they so choose. Because the greatest artists never began creating with the desire to be rich or famous, becoming rich or famous never feels like an end-point.
In the end, for the greatest and most talented artists, the creative process is unbelievably taxing to the mind and the soul. When you’re consumed by ideas, and know you have the gift to bring them to life, the only satisfaction comes in the act of creating. However, as we’ve discussed, that process can leave them almost as empty. That pain is what can lead them to mental and physical demise. It seems to be a vicious cycle. Because I believe this type of mind is truly a gift, I just don’t think the majority of people can empathize with this struggle. Instead, we label people, “crazy” and move on. Dave Chappelle said on “Inside the Actor’s Studio”, that “crazy” is the worst thing you can label someone as, because it’s dismissive. What he means is that it removes any sense of reason for their behavior. If we sit back and actually try and understand the people we are identifying as crazy, try to understand the pressures they feel, we might see that there are reasons for their actions.
I have long been one of Kanye West’s biggest apologizers. While everyone labels him as crazy and the ultimate narcissist, I myself find this to be not the real story. He more than likely is a narcissist, and demonstrates those behaviors, I do not think he is in the slightest bit crazy. He is, however, crazed with the desire to create. His mind is so active and so gifted that he simply cannot function without the means to bring his ideas to life. He is one of the greatest musical minds of the past 50 years, you may not agree but music critiques actually would, and in his mind that is only the tip of his creative being. He wants to create art in a multitude of forms, and in order to so, in certain industries, he needs to be let in. He feels as though those walls preventing his crossover, are unfairly constructed. However, Kanye isn’t reacting like many other artists and falling into a creative depression. His mental makeup is both more erratic and more feverish, and instead he goes into manic bouts of anger over his inability to create. While I don’t consider Kanye to be DaVinci, DaVinci was considered in his time to be a madman, brilliant but a madman nonetheless. The reason? Because while his paintings and sculptures were lauded with praise, his scientific endeavors were completely misunderstood. Kanye, like many other great artists, is losing his battle with the artist’s struggle, only it’s manifesting itself in a much more public and angry fashion. In the end, America finds it easier to accept the slow demise of a silenced soul then the brazen demands of a resistant one. This is truly ironic, since this country is built on the “American Dream”, the belief that if we want something we can not only try for it, but also achieve it.
In a very different way from my Kanye West tangent, I believe, Philip Seymour Hoffman succumb to the artist’s struggle. His gift of an active and super intelligent mind, ultimately was also the cause of his never-ending pain. His death by overdose may have been an accident, but I believe that he knew it was a possibility. At some point, seeking the feeling of not feeling becomes the desire to no longer live. Often we say that we must learn to harness our gifts, because our gifts can be as destructive as constructive if not managed. This was the entire point of “Good Will Hunting”, which by no coincidence is my favorite movie of all time. Philip Seymour Hoffman was a prisoner to his own gifts. His mind, so active and intuitive, was able to dig deeper then most, but also continued to dig and pry even when he wanted to find peace. The problem is that it is not as simple as just wanting to be happy or at peace. It takes a consistent and constant effort to manage ones emotions, especially when your mind is that gifted. Just like what John Nash had to teach himself to do to manage his psychosis. The saddest part of this entire scenario is that, I don’t believe Hoffman will be our last great talent to succumb to the artists struggle. I think it is, for a great many of the most talented people, a very sad, but inevitable result of receiving the gift to create. While I grieve for his family, and I will truly miss him as an actor, as a person and as a New Yorker, I am truly thankful for what he did create while he was alive.
He will live on through his work.