The Death of Philip Seymour Hoffman

Philip Seymour Hoffman was found February 2nd dead of a drug overdose on his bathroom floor. The heroin needle was still in his arm. More drugs and used needles were found in the apartment. He smoked cigarettes, but had been clean for twenty-three years. He had always been open about his struggle with addiction. After twenty three years of sobriety he checked into a rehab clinic last year due to a relapse.

Still, he was the antithesis of the reckless bacchanal that Hollywood lives so often devolve into. In interviews he came off as down to earth and earnest about his work. He seemed genuinely interested in the art and meaning of film, unpacking his roles alongside critics.

In the wake of Hoffman’s death, the media has been saturated with “In Memoriam” compilations of his roles and accomplishments. Nearly all of the accounts of his death fall into one of two distinct narratives.

The first narrative sets Hoffman’s death against the backdrop of the growing heroin problem in the US. After all, between 2002 and 2011 the number of heroin users jumped by a little over 53%, more than any other narcotic in the same time span. As prescription pill abuse has fallen out of fashion, heroin use has spiked across the US even more in the past few years, so much so that the governor of Vermont’s State of the State address focused entirely on the growing heroin epidemic. Hoffman, this narrative purports, is but another victim of this trend.

The second narrative takes a more personal approach to Hoffman’s death, explaining it as a result of his addiction. It details the last days weeks of his life, noting all the appropriate warning signs gone unheeded. Fans spotted him drunk and slumped over on a flight to La Guardia. His friends noticed signs of deteriorating health in his complexion and his, at least more than usual, disheveled appearance. In the end, this narrative concludes Hoffman finally succumbed to his own demons.

These narratives form naturally to answer questions of how this could have happened. Especially in the case of the second, the temptation to dramatize Hoffman’s final days with a sort of cinematic quality emerges easily from just how chilling some of the details actually are. That night,  he spent an hour standing in front of an ATM withdrawing the exact amount of $200 over and over again.  He texted  one final, unanswered invitation to a friend to watch the Knicks game. Instead, he injected the drug.

The problem with these narratives, though, is that while on the surface they may answer the basic question of how, simultaneously, they ask, with an all-too-knowing intonation, “Could anything else have happened?” There is an implicit feeling of determinism woven into both of these narratives. In the first, Hoffman was swept up by forces far beyond his control. Decades of a failed war on drugs and poor narcotics policy made Hoffman’s demise inevitable, as he became the latest casualty. In the second, Hoffman’s hand was guided by his addiction, and he finally gave in to a disease he could not keep fighting.

Obviously there’s some truth to both of these scenarios. In one way or another Hoffman was taken down this path. The danger of these narratives lies in its denial that Hoffman’s death was a product of choices and missed opportunities by himself and those around him. In seeking to place blame on something, the booming heroin trade or the power of addiction, it absolves everyone of any sort of responsibility; the tragic turns into Tragedy, and we all know how those end from the start. The fact is death by drug overdose is eminently and imperially avoidable. The reality of Hoffman’s death is then all the more horrific: the life of one of the greatest actors of our generation did not reach its predestined terminus, it was allowed, by himself and those around him, to fall through the cracks.

Hoffman commented in The New York Times profile published in anticipation of his role as Father Flynn in Doubt: “In 80 years, no one I’m seeing now will be alive. Hopefully, the art will remain.” The prescience of his comment was proven all too soon.


–Alexander Kane