Monday, February 3, 2014

In Memory of Phillip Seymour Hoffman

Actors - Before I expound here, let me share my background with you.  I played my first part at the age of 6, in a school pageant.  I played the lead, because I was the only one who could remember the lines.  For the next fifty years (yep, that's 50) I acted, danced, sang, and directed my way through many productions.  My degrees are in theater, both my BA and my MA. 

That being said, I know actors, what makes them seek the stage, and how the best ones are made.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman was one of the very best it has ever been my privilege to see.  He had the true gift to disappear into the role and become the character.  No matter if he played the computer geek in "Twister", the enigmatic priest accused of child molestation in "Doubt", or the very real character of Truman Capote (for which he won his Academy Award), we believed  him - lived the pain of the character through him.  We recognized our own pain through his work.

Actors, and I'm not talking about a jock-become-action-star, use their own experience - their joy, their pain, their fear, to make their onscreen or onstage characters live. They open their worst memories and pull up their nightmares to become the characters.

Stanislavski called it "the Method" and became famous for developing the process.

In my case, I relived my mother's funeral a year after her passing, night after night during the run of a play.  I never had trouble producing actual tears onstage.  I had trouble turning them off at times.  After each performance I was exhausted. I went home and crashed, only to get up the next day and do it all over again until the play's run ended.

Acting is not easy in any way.  It's hard, gut-wrenching work.  But some of us are driven to it.

It is a catharsis, but has its own pitfalls.  The actor can become mired in his own pain. 

Many actors have abysmal childhood memories.  They never grow up entirely.  They love to become somebody else to completely erase that child who suffered - whether physically, emotionally, or psychically doesn't matter.  The lure of the escape into someone else is too strong to ignore.

But that escape, while fun in many ways, is also dangerous.  The actor during the course of a play or movie from the first script reading to the final curtain or wrap-up, has to face his/her pain - look at something long since put away and deal with it.

The problem is once that emotional memory is opened and examined, it won't go easily back into the safe little box at the back of one's mind.  It is a constant reminder.

That's when actors seek other kinds of pain relief - sex, food, alcohol, or drugs, to name the most popular - sometimes, they use all of them to dull the pain.  The trouble is, pain such as this becomes harder and harder to handle.  Use of whatever relief they choose becomes escalated, until they can no longer function.

When I heard about Mr. Hoffman's death and the manner of it, I knew.  His pain overwhelmed him and he couldn't take it anymore.  I'm not saying he knowingly committed suicide.  I'm saying he needed more and more help to dull the ever present pain.

He was a truly brilliant actor, with few who could compete at his level.  For us, it is a tragedy that his means of coping with the pain in his soul was the means of taking him. But for him, he is finally free.  He can soar unencumbered.

I wish I had been able to see his performance as Willy Loman in the Broadway production of Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman."  He won critical acclaim and a Tony nomination.  I bet he was shattering the the role - in fact, I know he was.

To Phillip, the adult child, I say, in the poignant words of the old song, "this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you."

Rest in peace.