Last Sunday, I was in the kitchen making snacks for when our friends came over to watch the big Sportsball game, when Joel announced: “Phillip Seymour Hoffman died.”
By the time I sat down at my computer, the hashtag #RIPPSH was already getting some traction … but let’s be honest, the football fans were dominating Twitter that particular afternoon.
But Monday morning, every online news source that I read was splitting the headlines between the game and remembering Hoffman. Many good journalists, who had met the actor personally, have already eulogized him. So that’s not what I’m doing today.
What I am writing about is a line from the New Yorker’s article that stuck out to me. The article suggests that what stays with us, moviegoers who were affected by Hoffman’s performaces, is “the sense that the torment and the talent are inseparable.”
This is something that I’ve thought about often, actually, and something that was discussed in nearly every writing class I took in college. Sylvia Plath is one of my favorite poets — could I write like her without ending up with my head in an oven? Or David Foster Wallace, who committed suicide during the week I was at “poetry camp,” was his writing a symptom of or separate from his depression?
About a year ago, my mom and I went to a reading by Ellen Forney from her graphic memoir Marbles, which is about her bipolar disorder, from the time just before her diagnosis to the present. Something she revisits throughout the memoir is her struggle with how her illness affects her art and whether using medication to manage her symptoms cancels out her creativity.
Forney is very upfront about the fact that one of her initial thoughts at being diagnosed with bipolar disorder is that she’s now a welcome member of “The Van Gogh Club,” the club for crazy artists revered for both brilliance and madness. Once she’s been welcomed to this club, she’s reluctant to leave.
This happens in chapter one, which is what she read from the night that my mom and I saw her. After the reading, she took questions from the audience and someone asked something like “do you still think being a card carrying member of the Van Gogh Club for crazy artists is conducive to creating great art?” or maybe it was “do you still worry that taking medication is keeping your creativity in check?”
Forney answered no – without keeping her symptoms of bipolar disorder in check, which she does with medication and lifestyle changes, she would not have the mental faculties to create art. She pointed out that Marbles is her biggest accomplishment to date and that she never would have been able to create it if she was still experiencing extreme mania and depression.
I’ve discussed before how important discipline is to writing – and art, at that. Having one’s mental faculties intact is an important part of discipline.
Anyway, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death is sad — that goes without saying. What’s more sad, to me, is that we continue to proliferate this idea that drug addiction or mental illness or general malaise go hand in hand with great artists and actors and writers and musicians. It’s not the case, so let’s stop equating the two.
I leave you today with what is, in my opinion, Hoffman’s best scene — this is from Almost Famous, and you should also check out Director Cameron Crowe’s tribute to Hoffman about the making of this moment.
(This has swear words in it, but otherwise is SFW.)