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Philip Seymour Hoffman’s ‘terminal uncertainty’

The death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman has spawned a mix of feelings among fans and followers of his work: grief over the loss, sadness over the work never to be seen, bafflement over the senselessness of his death—or at least, what we who have the good fortune of being able to pronounce it senseless can experience as bafflement. Why would someone with such skill and so vast an array of good work already to his credit, not to mention three children of his own and the knowledge one acquires over the course of forty-six years, engage in activity so reckless? Because even though young enough to promise so much more, and old enough to know better, he was nonetheless troubled enough to continue to seek relief in something he’d struggled with for decades.

Aside from the ugly little lecture from Ben Shapiro at The National Review, the appreciations have mainly and generously focused on the breadth and consistently high quality of Hoffman’s work in movies and theater. And what’s remarkable is just how much of it there is—fifty films in twenty-five years, from the amazing stuff in Paul Thomas Anderson films dating from Hard Eight through Boogie Nights, Magnolia (clip below), Punch-Drunk Love and 2012’s The Master (reviewed in Commonweal by Richard Alleva); to his depictions of real figures like Art Howe (he played Art Howe!) in Moneyball (reviewed in Commonweal by Alleva), Lester Bangs in Almost Famous, and of course the eponymous author in Capote (reviewed in Commonweal by Rand Richards Cooper), for which he won an Academy Award. He appeared in indies like Next Stop Wonderland and Happiness and blockbusters like The Hunger Games and Mission Impossible III. For an entire still-thriving subculture he’ll forever be the obsequious Brandt from The Big Lebowski. And then there’s the stage work: his duet with John C. Reilly in the 2000 production of Sam Shepard’s True West, his performance as Jamie in 2003’s Long Day’s Journey into Night (reviewed here for Commonweal by Celia Wren), his directing and acting with the Labyrinth Theater Company.

Two passages describing Hoffman’s work have jumped out at me in putting this post together; one appears in the headline, and it comes from Ben Brantley’s New York Times review of Hoffman’s last appearance on Broadway, as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman: “Mr. Hoffman does terminal uncertainty better than practically anyone, and he’s terrific in showing the doubt that crumples Willy just when he’s trying to sell his own brand of all-American optimism.” The other is from Richard Alleva’s review in Commonweal of the 2009 film Doubt: “When it comes to ambiguity, no actor is better than Philip Seymour Hoffman. He conveys … creepiness and possible saintliness not just by turns but simultaneously in a portrait that is downright cubistic.”

“Uncertainty” and “cubistic,” and for good measure throw in Lee Siegel’s “beautiful helplessness” from his New Yorker remembrance. All somehow fitting in tribute—but how unfortunate they have to be summoned this way at all.

About the Author

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s digital editor.



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I am sad to realize that, as A. O. Scott put it, "We will be denied his Lear, his Prospero, his James Tyrone in another Long Day’s Journey Into Night." Hoffman had a great career in front of him.

One film of his I haven't seen mentioned anywhere is Owning Mahowny, an indie from 2003 based on a true story about a Canadian bank employee whose gambling successes nearly took down a casino. I saw it last year (on a Minnie Driver Netflix kick -- she's great in it as well), and as I recall the ending is a letdown. But the movie is a compelling and unglamorous portrait of a man who lets his addiction destroy his life. Or, as the plot summary on this Flash-laden official site puts it:

He isn't interested in the glamorous perks casinos offer big spenders. It never occurs to him to save any of his winnings. He lives for the thrill of the bet. And that thrill drives him to incredible lengths of ingenuity and stamina. He is, in the purest sense imaginable, an addict.

Sorry Dominic. Your post, as well as other comments, celebrate talent over character. Big mistake as I see it. That one would jeopardize one's life when he has three young children is not something to celebrate in any way. It is a distortion of values any way you slice it. So many children have been tortured by a parent who lost it to drugs. There is absolutely nothing to celebrate in Hoffman's pasising. I would use the words of Vince Lombard to illustrate my point, however much the example may limp. "Coaches who can outline plays on a black board are a dime a dozen. The ones who win get inside their player and motivate" are the best. It is just not appropriate to give Hoffman this kind of praise when so many mothers and fathers are sacrificing their lives for their children and friends.

Addiction is a most devastating factor in so many people's lives  to give it this kind of glory.  Certaintly let God be the judge. We are in a celebrity culture. We should not add to it.  And talent is a "dime a dozen." But someone who lays down her life for her friends is what gives life to all. 


Bill, if one thinks of addiction as a disease, then isn't this post appropriate?

Certaintly let God be the judge.

Well, we don't need to let God be the judge, Bill, since we have you. Certianly, your incessant preachiness has given the world more than PSH's acting ever did.

Yes Claire. It is a disease. Not unavoidable. Once the addiction takes hold recidivism happens more frequently. Yet I have encountered too many addicts whose "road to recovery" continually denies responsibility to those they have harmed. This is why AA Step 9 says: "Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others."  Even drug and alchohol counserlors (mostly former addicts) are very firm with those who deny responsibility.

While we must always show compassion. We need to prefer those, like the children. who have been most harmed. Certainly, celebration of the talent of one who abused his life is not the way to go. Acknowledgement, certaintly. Celebration no. 

I am not qualified to talk about whether addiction is a disease or not. If it is, the cure is dicey; AA's success rate is about 30 percent, but is measured over periods of one to five years. (If you had cancer, those wouldn't be great odds.)

I confess that when I heard of Philip Seymour Hoffman's death, I immediately thought of his children.

I grew up with addictive parents. They were needy, self-centered, unpredictable, demanding, and self-destructive. When they were sober, they wanted constant accolades for their sobriety and will-power because they were doing it all without AA (which, they told us incessantly somehow proved God did not exist and or, at least, could not be relied upon for help).

My brother and I left home know how to  "taper off" someone who was drunk so they wouldn't go into DTs or convulsions. We knew where the booze was hidden and learned how to water it down without the drinker knowing in hopes they wouldn't get quite so drunk. We knew that any binge that lasted more than three days required a call for an ambulance. We knew which neighbors had washed their hands of our parents and could not be relied upon to help us and which ones were more sympathetic.

My parents created an atmosphere of fear and anxiety. The worst part was that when they were off the dope and booze, we loved them very much. It's why children of alcoholics often don't just walk way from it, but instead swirl around in that toxic combination of grief and impotence. It's a "gift" that lasts a lifetime and, without a lot of work, causes ripple effects even in children who manage to duck becoming addicted themselves. 

I pray for addicts every day because I feel sorry for the lives they damage. I also pray for myself because I am unable to forgive them.

Bill Mazella seems to think addiction is a matter of "character." Maybe for some people it is, totally. Maybe for some people it isn't at all. And the majority probably fall somewhere between those two extremes. What I would like to know is how Bill Mazella knows into which category Philip Seymour Hoffman fits, and if he's somewhere between the two extremes, where along the spectrum is he? 

Self-destructive behavior like alcoholism, drug addiction, and the ultimate in self-destruction, suicide, should certain never be condoned. But condeming the "character" of those who engage in self-destructive behavior—especially without knowing anything about the person's inner life—is denying the reality that some people have problems so severe that they are unable to overcome them. 

On the one hand, certainly we don't want to say to struggling addicts, "You may be unable to stop using drugs." On the other hand, it is true, and once an addict has died, I am not sure what the point is of saying, "What a flawed character he had!" 

It is a rare but well documented fact that drugs used to treat Parkinson's in rare cases turn people into compulsive gamblers. I remember reading the story of a man who had never been a problem gambler but suddenly began to gamble compulsively and whose entire life fell apart. He lost his job, his marriage fell apart, and he went deeply into debt. No treatment he underwent enabled him to stop gambling. Then someone realized he was taking a Parkinson's drug, and when he stopped, he lost all desire to gamble. Who knows how many people in the grip of seriously self-destructive behavior have some chemical imbalance in the brain that, if corrected, would instantly "cure" them? 

I celebrate Jean Rabor and all children who did not deserve that kind of life. 


David, Is it a mark of something that you also are now speaking to me in the third  person? As Jean , I think of the children first. Hoffman is not even in my picture when it comes to seeing this. Many people are talented. But children are of heaven. 

I don't need to be celebrated or want to be pitied. I wish I had more grace to "get over it."

Moreover, many addicts do fine work (as Hoffman did), and I don't think that goes unnoticed in heaven, whence that talent comes. 

But I always feel that the news media misses a chance to highlight the widespread damage addiction does by focusing solely on the loss of the addict, pouring out compassion and sorrow on his afflication, and mourning the end of his work.

I don't see Bill's comments as a judgement on Philip Seymour Hoffman's life or even the framing of addiction as a characer defect.Besides,  I am not convinced that the disease model is that useful. Afterall, alcohol withdrawal is, in fact, more physically dangerous than opiod withdrawal according to many medical experts. And the evidence for biological predisposition is not great. It appears that chronic abuse and addiction linked more to physical and sexual abuse, neglect, trauma and so on,

What I see Bill drawing attention to is how the media handles this issue and the risk this might have for contagion (yet that is a real phenomena), the view that somehow creativity and drug addiction or use are linked (not true), and the minimizing of the impact that addiction has for people involved. I would add that all forms of addiction including work, shopping, and sex, have negative impacts. Granted not as lethal but nonetheless they have impact.

This is an important area to consider given the push for legalization of drugs which is moving quickly. While I think drug laws need reform, I think the model of legalization like Colarado is ill advised. Legal under medical care is another story.

I just saw self-righteous, pseudo-prophetic ranting that made me want to puke blood, but, hey--that's just me.


I made an attempt at reason however imperfect. Your rant was total ad hominem. 

Oh, is that what you were doing?


The fact is that your posts are totally negative. You have not shown that you stand for anything. All you do is criticize others without saying what you  believe in or stand for. It is easy to bash others. Tell us what you stand for or believe. Without bashing others.

Jean, your parents sound like what psychotherapists refer to as dry drunks -- people who retain all the self-centeredness that accompanies (or might be caused or amplified by) addiction, minus the alcohol. 

Bill, I would say your post was totally negative as well.  Your allegiance to his children comes across mostly as a prop.  Addiction is a confounding thing -- it lives somewhere in the same gray space occupied by obesity or for some people, diabetes.  Something that by all appearances you ought to be able to do something about with enough helping hands educating and guiding and supporting you.  And yet, the evidence for permanent change or "cure" is dreary.  I have no idea what demons drove Hoffman, or if he was someone who was exquisitely, neurologically "vulnerable" to addiction, such that what might be seen as normal experimentation as a young person (when drug abuse reportedly became a problem) propelled him on a difficult and catastrophic personal journey.  Evidence shows that he loved his children.  Evidence shows that he couldn't eradicate the power drugs had over him.  Evidence shows that he tried and was apparently successful for many years.  I read that he had recently separated from the mother of his children.  Knowing how this sometimes works it would not surprise me if she told him to move because she knew of his relapse, and this separation became the impetus for heavier abuse and an out of control spiral of self-destruction. 

So there he remains for me, a flawed person who was immensely talented and left a legacy of his gifts that some of us appreciate.  Don't you think his kids are sad enough today that you should avoid this kind of condemnatory certainty -- which often enough turns out to be speculative and uninformed?

I do wonder if there is something about people who are intensely creative that makes them somehow more susceptible to substance abuse.  


I think Barbara's analogy with addiction and obesity/diabetes is interesting; there seems to be both a psychological and physiological component in all of these maladies. But I wonder if diabetics and overeaters exhibit the same kind of narcissim and self-involvement that drunks and compulsive gamblers show.

Barbara also says:

I read that he had recently separated from the mother of his children.  Knowing how this sometimes works it would not surprise me if she told him to move because she knew of his relapse, and this separation became the impetus for heavier abuse and an out of control spiral of self-destruction.

This could indeed have happened; drunks and dope addicts will latch onto just about any rationale to keep drinking, and blaming someone else is one of the most common: "You're making me so miserable I HAVE to drink/shoot up."

At the risk of making Abe puke more blood, I don't think it's a coincidence that this same rationale for "falling off the wagon" is also used by wife beaters and child abusers.

Addictive behaviors surely need more study.

Barbara, your thoughtful comment strikes the right tone and balance here. I'm struck by the account, included in a New York Times story today, of Hoffman standing at an ATM machine the night before he died, making repeated withdrawls in the maximum allowable $200 increments: "over and over, for an hour." I used to see him on the street, but it's this image that humanizes him for me almost more than any other -- what a place to be in, to stand there like that at a supermarket cash machine.

I understand the initial angry, condemnatory reaction to news of such deaths; I sometimes feel it myself. Less do I understand the unchecked impulse to broadcast it, and still less the conscious decision to double-down. But then, we should also have compassion for those whose discomfort with the messy facts (or with "the gray space," to use Barbara's words) of something like addiction makes them unable to see through to the sufferer.

"Addiction is a disease" so often turns into a fightin' statement.  But the word "disease" hides a wealth of nuance.  

At one extreme is a class of acute, surgically treatable diseases or conditions with excellent cure rates, assuming proper care is availabe.  Think acute appendicitis, broken ankle, kidney stones, cephalopelvic  disproportion during childbirth.  Curable with appendectomy,  hardware and casting, nephrolithotripsy stone removal by cystoscope, cesarian section.  

At another extreme is the wildfire disease or condition for which no drug and no technology is effective. Some cancers (anaplastic thyroid), some traumas (crushing brain injury), some infections.  

And then there is the vast middle, the myriad chronic physical and mental (as if these were so easily separable) diseases with variable severity, variable response to treatment, and variable ability, for whatever reason, of a single person to tolerate the prescribed course of treatment.

Some diabetics are controlled easily with diet; others require insulin and achieve only tenuous control.  Some people have relatively mild coronary artery disease; in others it is relentless despite stenting, surgery, and medication. 

We do not regard addiction as analogous to other chronic diseases in at least two ways:  1.  Recognizing, explicitly or not, that this disease manifests itself in different degrees and different permutations in different people. Setting aside the question of whether the addiction fuels the creative machine,  why are some addicts (taken substance for substance) reduced to incapacity while others get up and go to work and do GOOD work for years and years?   2. As some have noted above, 12-step and other programs don't work for a fair number of addicts.  Not sure, in all cases, that it is fair to hold the addict entirely responsible for this.  Yes, a lot of addicts don't stick to the 12 steps; neither do a lot of diabetics avoid donuts, nor a lot of heart patients avoid trans fats and get sufficient exercise, or take their fistful of statins, etc., every day. The treatment, in many instances, is not a cure.  And some people, through no fault or virtue of their own, are more easily able to comply with onerous therapy.  And of course still others do comply, heroically. 

Maybe I've missed something in discussions like these, but I can't recall ever hearing a diabetic, heart patient, schizophrenic, or person with cancer who said no to the chemo taken to posthumous task for failure to comply with quite the fervor as the addict is.  Is this because, on average, the addict has wrought more havoc in the lives of others prior to death from disease.

Disclosures:  I also can't get over it, but in a different  fashion and am a Health Care Provider, wandering far far from my area of expertise.


Jean, as I used to fume privately after feeling manipulated once again by a friend with a diagnosed psychotic condition, "where does he end and his disease begin?"  Because he was very smart and was very adept -- whether intentionally or not -- at trying to shield "bad" behaviors behind his diagnosis.  Eventually I excised him from my life because I didn't like the feeling of "forced" altruism that was required to accept and tolerate behavior that is totally unacceptable for "normal" people.  The low point was when I politely told him to stop touching me and he informed me that I needed to cut him some slack because he wasn't normal.  Imagine if that was your dad talking.

As for the narcissism angle -- I honestly think that addiction drives people to narcissism, not that narcissism drives people to addiction.  To see those around you suffering because of you and not do anything to reduce their suffering requires some monumental defense mechanisms to keep you from complete self-loathing, and developing a sense of "self-importance" that obliterates the importance of others would seem to be a natural reaction for an addict.   

It would be helpful if we could see addiction in terms of public health and less in terms of law enforcement terms -- not to excuse addicts but to obtain better understanding.  As much as a child might be hurt by an addicted parent, he is better off if society directs resources at ameliorating addiction than condemning and incarcerating the addict. 

Barbara, I don't condemn him with certainty. I object to celebrating  his talent to the point where it overshadows the harm  he brought to others, especially his children. As with pedophiles I am with the children first and I really do not want to give the same attention to the offendor as the victim. I am for rehab and helping. But I am with the harmed over the harmer. 


Bill, it would be one thing if his memorial service was all about his talent without regard to his family -- it's another thing for a newspaper arts beat to comment on his work in a way that respects the privacy of his children.  It bears stressing that most of us (certainly I) didn't actually know Hoffman or his family, and his specific newsworthiness arises out of his public work, not his private nightmares.  This is true for all public figures, which doesn't mean no one should ever talk about their families, but it would be grotesque, tabloid style journalism to delve into the specifics of his relationship with his children at this point in time, and how they were harmed by his addiction.   In all honesty, I understand that they are young, and my conjecture is that over time the biggest harm they will suffer is the loss of their father at such a young age.  That he was unable to overcome his addiction -- through his own fault or otherwise -- to become the father they deserved.  Losing a parent is probably the most consequential event a child can experience, and it's often astonishing to me how many children of addicts show more mercy and love for their parents than society at large or you would. 

"But I always feel that the news media misses a chance to highlight the widespread damage addiction does by focusing solely on the loss of the addict, pouring out compassion and sorrow on his afflication, and mourning the end of his work."


I don't see how what I am saying is any different than what Jean wrote in the above statement. Perhaps I have not expressed myself correctly but this is my whole point. Further, I have spent many years counseling drug addicts and alcoholics. Your statement that I don't show any mercy and love for them is totally gratuitous. . 


My family had a family friend who was both an alcoholic of many years and schizophrenic.  He was getting psychiatric help, but not getting very far.  One day when his young sons had some friends over to play he went into the yard with them.  He started acting funny and talking to people who weren't there.  The visitors started making fun of him, and he realized that his children were terribly embarassed by his behavior.  Later he told his wife that he quit drinking on the spot because he saw what it was doing to his children.  Obviously, he had not realized before that moment what was happening in his family because of him.  And he did quit for good, though he didn't live for many years after that..  His psychiatrist told his wife later that the man was so miserable that if he had not had such a strong religious faith he would have killed himself years before.  Shades of Mr. Hoffman?

My point is that some dreadful drunks apparently really don't realize the consequences of their actions on those they love.  *Why* they don't  realize it should perhaps be researched better.  Why, for instance, are some people so dreadfully narcissistic?  And are they responsible for that, shall we call it, "world-view"?  In other words, do narcissists even realize that their self-image is a highly distorted one?  

About addictive actions.  Aquinas notes that there are times when people simply are incapable of choosing to act differently.  The reason they can't is because choice requires that we be able to see two different possibilities, and if our consciousness is so filled with one possible course of action that we cannot at that moment even conceive of another one,  then there is simply nothing else to choose. He gives as an example a man finding his wife in bed with aother man:  if the man is so enraged that he cannot even think of anything else but killing the adulterer then he has no choice -- in his mind at that moment there is only one good, viz., avenging himself on the villain, and he has no choice but to do so.   

It seems to me that there might be an analogy here with an addict looking at the substance or action he/she craves:  the goodness of the experience so completely  fills the addict's mind that he/she can't think of choosing any other good, e.g., refusing it for th esake of his/her kids.  I don't know if this is what happens or not, but it seems to me that it's quite possible, and it would be good if the addicts could learn to distract themselves somehow from what they so relentlessly desire.  But how?  

Bill, the notion that there is a "harmer" and a "harmed," for one thing, might itself be incredibly painful for a child who is indeed harmed by an addicted parent but who still loves that parent.  To suggest that the parent is "bad" and not worth being loved or celebrated.  That's like a cartoon caricature of people that is unlikely to do anything except make you feel virtuous.  I am not the one who started in this direction, and I quote "Sorry Dominic. Your post, as well as other comments, celebrate talent over character. Big mistake as I see it. That one would jeopardize one's life when he has three young children is not something to celebrate in any way. It is a distortion of values any way you slice it. So many children have been tortured by a parent who lost it to drugs. There is absolutely nothing to celebrate in Hoffman's pasising."

To me it sounds like this: "Your daddy was a piece of *&*# and I don't even understand why you're crying his loss."  Own up Bill.

Bill M -  For someone who "spent many years counseling addicts and alcoholics" your comments seem difficult to understand.  Do you really think that Mr. Hoffman chose, exercised his free-will, to become an addict?  Do you think that he similarly chose to jeopardize his life?  Have you forgotten the role that heredity plays?  Forgotten that addiction is a brain disease?  It is particularly galling that someone of your intelligence and sensitivity would be so jingoistic concerning a subject that impacts so many of the chronically poor whose cause you often reference.  What percentage of the chronically homeless do you think suffer from addiction?  Should they just make better life decisions?  Are they the "undeserving poor" who do not deserve our assistance?  Here's an imperfect starting point for you to reeducate yourself:  JK

I understand the initial angry, condemnatory reaction to news of such deaths; I sometimes feel it myself. Less do I understand the unchecked impulse to broadcast it, and still less the conscious decision to double-down. But then, we should also have compassion for those whose discomfort with the messy facts (or with "the gray space," to use Barbara's words) of something like addiction makes them unable to see through to the sufferer.

Ouch! I apologize to one and all and will bow out of this thread. Sorry.

The choice is to use the drug the first time and continue. The addiction come when physicality takes over like with smoking also. As far as I see it Jean is the one person here who has not got the information from books. As I said I leave it up to God as to ultimate judgement. We are all sinners. That is something to admit. Not celebrate. What we celebrate is our redemption. There is joy in heaven over each sinner who repents. And if that repentance is real the first thing they will do is make amends to those they harmed. 

It is one thing to love and have mercy on the sinner. I will let God judge me on that. Not you, Barbara nor James Keegan. Just read the 12 steps. They are replete with demanding responsibility. Not the blank exoneration that many are giving here. James I have truly helped many addicted people. But not by absolving them of responsibility. All forgiveness is followed by amendment. 

Jesus said that a severe judgment is due those who harm children. He will choose who merits it. Not I. But I do not want those who harm children celebrated no matter what their talent. Standing before an ATM 12 times to get $200.00 in nothing compared to what happens to children of neglectful parents. 

Just remember, Barbara, for all your absolutes, just admit that you could be wrong. You certainly are not a good listener as you did not understand my point. We will have to agree to disagree. If that is allowed in  your understanding of dialogue. 



Finally, the only therapies that have worked are those generated by ex-addicts. They famously chide "professionals" for letting themselves be manipulated by addictive personalities.

"What percentage of the chronically homeless do you think suffer from addiction?  Should they just make better life decisions?  Are they the "undeserving poor" who do not deserve our assistance?"


James K,

Whatever are you talking about? I never said they do not deserve our assistance. I said we should not celebrate that kind of life. While they can be forgiving for the harm they have done to others, they part of their recovery should be making amends to those they have harmed. I will still feed and clothe them if they have not changed their ways. But I will not say that they  should not take responsibility for their actions. 

I think it's easy to say that so-and-so is a crappy actor, and easy to say that so-and-so is a great actor. I don't know if it really makes any sense, in terms of acting as an art, to say that somebody is the greatest. But maybe we could have said that PSH was. I think that his scene with Mark Wahlberg (the one where he tries to kiss him) is the one to watch to understand how good he was. Dominic didn't mention one of academy award nominated roles--that of Gust Avrakotos in Charlie Wilson's War. It's a good one to mention, just in terms of how well it demonstrates his range (and because it's a fun and oddly relatable performance). To wit:

(um, nsfw--unless you work someplace cool)

Without comment:

We need to listen to addicts.  They can tell us a lot about the nature of addiction. 

Does anybody know if depression has been more common in the 20-21st centuries than at other periods? Surely there's no obvious historical data for figuring that out, but I wonder if any medical or literary studies of earlier medical practices or the literature of different places and times have been done.

To me it seems more common than when I was young.  Or maybe people are just more willing to talk about it theses days.  I wonder also how the theological concept of despair is related to depression.

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