Philip Seymour Hoffman and the Historical Triumph and Tragedy of American Movies

Philip Seymour-Hoffman won a Best Actor Oscar for his role as Truman Copote, the brilliant but tortured American writer whose life provided perfect fodder for American cinema.

Philip Seymour-Hoffman won a Best Actor Oscar for his role as Truman Capote, the brilliant but tortured American writer whose life provided perfect fodder for American cinema.

On February 2, 2014 — Groundhog Day — America lost Philip Seymour Hoffman, whom many critics considered to be “the best actor of his generation.” The forty-six-year-old actor was found dead in his New York City apartment building of an apparent drug overdose; a reasonable conclusion given the needle that still pierced his arm. Thus, in a turn of events that has long since become tragically clichéd, Seymour Hoffman joined many a brilliant artist from all mediums and from all parts of the world whose genius was too large a burden, driving them to self-medicate and self-destruct.

Seymour Hoffman’s untimely death spurred an outpouring of grief and well-wishes both from the film industry and from the general public as well; a testament to the profound influence his screen-presence rendered on American culture. Indeed, the tragedy of Seymour Hoffman’s death speaks volumes about the unique role the film industry has played in shaping American culture since the early 20th century, for better and for worse.

Hollywood films promote the triumph of America by highlighting its dominance as the world’s pre-eminent cultural empire whose influence touches all corners of the earth. But some of the best American movies also highlight the inherent tragedy of a culture that’s constructed on the sandy foundations of materialism, narcissism, and the blind pursuit of money, fame, and power. Many of the films in which Seymour Hoffman demonstrated his best work dealt with the paradoxical tragedy of American abundance; a situation in which all of the attendant trappings of wealth and fame can lead not to serene contentment, but to self-destruction. Seymour Hoffman’s life and career epitomized this tragedy.

Film critics always described Hoffman as lacking in the traditional qualities of a “leading man.” Rather than being a dark-haired, rock-jawed, deep-voiced, possibly gay Adonis, Hoffman was, in fact, a schlubby, sometimes paunchy, sandy-haired, jovial, soft-spoken Everyman. He was the consummate actor not because of how he looked, but because of how he disappeared into roles, often portraying individuals who existed in society’s corner margins, either by choice or necessity, and forcing viewers to acknowledge the existence of these people.

Seymour Hoffman’s best roles were often not leading roles; rather, he specialized in turning supporting characters into people from which movie-goers couldn’t avert their gaze. Consider his role as the doting lackey to the pompous titular millionaire in The Big Lebowski (1998), or his similarly devoted nurse to Jason Robards’ dying t.v. producer in Magnolia (1999), or his turn as legendary music critic Lester Bangs — a man who critiqued rock stars like Led Zeppelin that were otherwise worshipped by audiences — in Almost Famous (2000). In these roles, Seymour Hoffman played the people who serve or observe those in power; people who Americans usually ignore despite their omnipresence. We ignore them because they don’t fit the American ideal: they aren’t wealthy and powerful, they only wait on those individuals who are. Americans are bathed in a culture that tells them that they can — nay — should be the millionaire, not the millionaire’s servant. Seymour Hoffman made people at least pay attention to the servants.

Philip Seymour Hoffman as the devoted lacky of arrogant millionaire Jeff Lebowski (David Huddleston) in The Big Lebowski.

Philip Seymour Hoffman as the devoted lackey of arrogant millionaire Jeff Lebowski (David Huddleston) in The Big Lebowski.

Even in his leading roles, when he portrayed powerful individuals, Seymour Hoffman chose to play people whose powerful positions masked deep insecurities and weaknesses that ultimately led to their downfall. Take his Oscar-nominated role as a suspected pedophile priest in Doubt (2008). His performance was bracing because he embodied a figure, the clergyman, traditionally respected and revered as a symbol of earthly and celestial authority who was nonetheless torn down by his own weaknesses and the tenacious efforts of a nun, a member of society’s lower orders that usually lives to serve, not to challenge authority figures.

Similar dynamics appear in his Oscar-winning portrayal of American writer Truman Capote in Capote (2005). The writer of literary classics like Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958) and In Cold Blood (1965-66), Capote’s genius brought him widespread fame, but his personal life was wracked by substance abuse and the burden of being openly gay in an era when such as admission had, to put it mildly, personal and professional risks. Seymour Hoffman’s depiction of the brilliant but haunted Capote perfectly captured the tragedy of American celebrity culture, which Hollywood both revels and critiques. Wealth, fame, and power all promise fulfillment, but too often act as drapery concealing personal demons that no amount of awards and million-dollar salaries can tame.

Seymour Hoffman effortlessly embodied those is power who experienced spectacular falls. This was, in part, due to his immense talent, but also because he worked in an industry that simultaneously encourages and destroys the great artists it employs. Historically, Hollywood has acted as both promoter and critic of the excesses of wealth and fame, and in this respect, it perfectly mirrors the larger American society it attempts to portray on-screen. This society somehow knows that pursuing wealth and fame doesn’t guarantee happiness and fulfillment, even if it can’t quite figure out viable alternatives to these pursuits.

The act of cinematic entertainment promoting the ideal of material success goes back to the earliest days of American movies. Historian Lauren Rabinovitz observes in her book Electric Dreamland: Amusement Parks, Movies, and American Modernity, that American movies emerged at the turn-of-the-century as a form of “artificial distraction” that ultimately served to sooth the anxieties of a racially and class-divided American society. “Movies represented new kinds of energized relaxation that also functioned to calm fears about new technologies and living conditions of an industrialized society,” Rabinovitz writes. Movies helped define a sense of “national belonging” via the participation in a new consumer society by combining “industrialized experiences with the sense of a new national corporate culture steeped in manufacturing.”*

By appealing broadly to an otherwise motley American populace divided along lines of gender, race, class, and ethnicity, movies helped define and portray the all-inclusive essence of the American dream; a dream that embraced industrialization, technology (especially mass-media) and hyper-capitalism via the assembly line as tools towards the greater end of happiness for all. As film scholar Steven J. Ross notes in Movies and American Society, “going to the movies and watching films quickly emerged as a common cultural denominator that provided a wide variety of Americans with similar social rituals.”* If American consumer culture could create something as wonderous and uniting as cinematic entertainment, then surely it held the keys to contentment itself.

As this garish 1926 premier of the film Don Juan at Manhatten's Picadilly Theater shows, movies have always epitomized the American embrace of mass consumer culture.

As this garish 1926 premier of the film Don Juan at Manhattan’s Piccadilly Theater shows, movies have always epitomized the American embrace of mass consumer culture.

The role of movies as advertisements for the materialistic American dream is a role they retain with even greater importance in the contemporary age of 24-7 mass-media. America is a nation utterly transfixed by celebrity culture because for a century the idea of the movies has epitomized the unrivaled abundance of American society. The wealth, fame, and adoration experienced by actors has historically validated America’s place as the indisputable world power of the 20th and 21st centuries. What other country could spawn such enviable demigods as American movie stars? The answer is none, you Commie. The very existence of movie stars, therefore, has provided many with sufficient proof of American greatness.    

Yet, as much as films have acted as promoters of America’s wealth and consumer-obsessed culture, they’ve also played an important role in critiquing this very same culture. Mass art has always challenged a society’s dominant notions, and movies are no exception. As Ross notes, “in shaping our vision of the promises and problems of American life, movies matter the most about the things which we know the least.”* And a good many Americans know little about true contentment.

Movies are part of the broader entertainment industry that reaps billions of dollars from consumers seeking distractions from real life. But there still remains the nagging suspicion in American society that earning more money, buying more stuff, and getting more famous doesn’t really lead to fulfillment. It’s no coincidence, for example, that so many movie stars are attracted to nutbag cults like Scientology that cater to those who have it all but still want something more. Average Americans have historically found themselves in a similar bind as they have tried to reconcile their embrace of a mass-media consumer society with that society’s inherently hollow core.

The triumph of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s life and career lay in his ability to lucidly depict the real weakness and faults of characters both marginal and powerful in society. The tragedy of his life was that he became one of the wealthy and powerful who ultimately self-destructed. Through his performances and then his untimely death, he explored the utter mystery of how to achieve contentment in a consumer culture in which “artificial distractions” like the movies may only present the façade of worldly fulfillment. In this respect, his death highlights the paradox of American society. If a man who reached the pinnacle of the most admired and watched industry in the U.S. nonetheless felt compelled to seek solace in the point of a toxic needle, what hope is there for the millions who look to celbritydom as the golden ticket to happiness?

I don’t claim to have any clear answers to these eternally difficult questions, but they’re nonetheless questions still worth asking if we ever hope to stop losing people like Philip Seymour Hoffman. Perhaps one day Hollywood will make a movie about his life. No doubt it would be equal parts brilliant and tragic: just like the man himself and the industry and American culture in which he so ably plied his trade.

* See Lauren Rabinovitz, Electric Dreamland: Amusement Parks, Movies, and American Modernity (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 2, 7.

* See Steven J. Ross, ed., Movies and American Society (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2002), 2.

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  1. I have so little interest in Hollywood, its trappings and 99% of its stars. But I was truly saddened when I found out at work that Hoffman passed away. I own one t-shirt based on a movie, The Big Lebowski, and I happen to be wearing it right now (coincidentally). It is 40 degrees here in Oz, so it might find its way onto the floor before long.

    Thanks for the commentary…and welcome back from your hiatus.

  2. Yeah, I feel much the same way. I’ve always been inclined towards the humanities and arts, but the flash of Hollywood is something about which I’m rather suspicious. Thanks for the compliments; I had a super busy week last week, and it’s sometimes frustrating that I don’t have more time to write on here. Gonna try and write a bit more next week.

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