Feb 2014

Exit, Stage Left

I suppose I mourn like everyone mourns when a celebrity dies.  There’s an initial shock of the loss, followed by the resignation of either a life well lived or one cut short.  While this isn’t “Framily”, you know them.  They’ve been in your home or in your local cinema and to a varying degree they may have moved you, enthralled you or turned you off.  And your reaction to their loss follows suit.

My reaction to the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman is obviously one of sadness.  Yet, I’m kinda surprised at the depth of sadness I felt.  The news seemed to color my Super Bowl Sunday; a light shade of down as opposed to a dark abyss.  Noticeable, not oppressive. I liked Hoffman as an actor.  His work was consistent.  Intelligent, nuanced, committed . . . all the inadequate buzz-words that we used to describe the art.

Truly, though, I think I liked his work . . . I admired him . . . because he was me.  And my sadness at his death is actually in the death of his work.  Work that reached a level that I’ve never achieved.  The me I never became.

I am not so self-deluded as to compare my work as an actor to that of an Oscar-winner.  Yet, he and I shared a similar physicality. Though I was more obese than he, neither of us would be considered a traditional leading man. We were about the same height.  His blonde hair lighter than mine.  We were both born in upstate NY. We both saw a play at a young age and were transformed. We both became fixated with being an actor.

And of course, here’s where the paths diverged.  In show biz, success comes to those who are driven . . . who let nothing stand in their way.  Hoffman wanted to act.  Needed to act.  He had the all-consuming need to express himself by pretending to be someone else.  And he drove himself to be the best actor he could be.

I wanted to be liked.  Admired for my abilities.  My own self-esteem reflected the applause or praise I received after a performance.  Sure, all actors . . . all humans feel some semblance of this.  For me, it was an attempt at finding acceptance through acting and it affected the way I thought of my work.  Rather than being focused on the process, the development of my craft, I was focused on the result.   Actually the result of the result.  This was and is the Great Wall that separated me from truly being an artist.  Eventually, I would judge all my performances against what I thought was good and, for the most part, came away wanting.  I was never as good as I wanted to be.

What I’ve seen in his work, and what I’ve read about him over the past 24 hours, Philip Seymour Hoffman found similar frustration with his acting.  A five-year-old profile in the New York Times quoted him,  “On every film, you’ll have nights where you wake up at 2 in the morning and think, I’m awful in this. You see how delicate it is — a little movement to the right or the left, and you’re hopelessly hokey.”

I don’t know that I ever woke up in the middle of the night to fret about a character, but the fear of sucking and the admitting of actual sucky performances was always there.  For me it became too much and I gave up acting for a long time.  Today, where once I would do 3-4 productions a year, I act only rarely and when sufficiently begged.  The infrequency makes it easier to accept what I’m doing on stage and put my own obsessions away.

Philip Seymour Hoffman apparently couldn’t put his obsessions anywhere.  How truly tortured he was by his art I don’t know, but when anyone in his mid-forties uses heroin as a means of escape . . . well, I’d guess he was pretty tortured.  His self-destruction tolls a familiar, unpleasant tone in my own psyche and the emptiness left in his wake is in me.

Requiescat in pace.

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