Tag Archive: Philip Seymour Hoffman


Peg Entwistle’s Entropy

There’s something about pursuing a life as an artist that can sometimes lead to acts of self destruction. Whether the writer drinks to excess, the painter cuts off part of his ear, or someone like actor James Dean crashes his sports car and ends his career after only three films. More modern examples abound, including Robin Williams, Amy Whinehouse, and even River Phoenix. I think we expect our artists to be both immortal and indestructible, and the truth is, Philip Seymour Hoffman, after years sober, can suddenly listen to the demons of addiction and overdose, ending one of the most prestigious careers of the modern era.

Still, when I worked in Los Angeles on a little known show called, Mysteries & Scandals, one artist stood out: Peg Entwistle. She had had a fairly successful career on Broadway, and definitely paid her dues, but Hollywood was not so kind to her. Her only supporting role came in a Myrna Loy/Irene Dunne, David O. Selznick vehicle called “Thirteen Women” that was released after her untimely death.

Peg Entwistle went for a walk one night and wound up in the Hollywood Hills with a suicide note in her purse. She claimed the letter H in the sign that then read, Hollywoodland, now just Hollywood.

I don’t know how much depression led to her suicide, how much alcohol contributed, and how much can be attributed simply to the impulse in some artists to self destruct. Robin Williams, one of my heroes for the way he lived life on his terms, unfortunately marred his legacy because of an intractable depression that came out of a recent Parkinson’s diagnosis, but word has it he died sober. That saddens me even more. With a clear mind, he took his life, and didn’t in that moment know the amount of joy he had brought to millions.

I suppose none of us are immune to the Black Dog Days that Winston Churchill described as plaguing him at times. The best we can do is go to bed early, take care of ourselves, check in with our friends, and trust that those dark days do indeed pass.

I just wonder a bit about the artistic bent toward self destruction. I recently started reading, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work in an effort to understand how best to channel those creative energies.

That showed a more positive spin on how people organize their days to insure heightened creativity. The key, I think, is what to do to survive fallow periods when you’re not feeling creative. Self preservation is more important than any particular string of well constructed sentences.

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Wreckage of the Past

One thing about being in recovery from either drugs or alcohol is that eventually you must face the wreckage of the past. In practicing the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, step nine tells addicts to make direct amends whenever possible, except when to do so would further injure others.

Just last week I saw a wonderful play at the Court theater, “Water By The Spoonful,” winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, by Quiara Alegria Hudes, about addiction, efforts at recovery, and the terrible price of addiction on those who surround the alcoholic or addict. The play was especially timely, given the unfortunate, unexpected relapse and death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman who got sober at age 22, spent 23 years in recovery, but sadly relapsed, overdosed, and died. Aaron Sorkin commented on Hoffman’s death in Time magazine: “He died because he was an addict on a day of the week with a y in it.”

Sometimes the best you can do in recovery when facing the wreckage of the past is to make a living amends, reform your life, stay sober “a day at a time,” and attempt to find a more spiritual way of living. Now that I’m coming up on seven years without a drink, there’s a slight tendency for me to whitewash my drinking years. It feels like the life of a different person, a person who dreamed of doing things, who dreamt of being creative, but never actually sat down to write, a person who wanted to live life fully, but lived a shadow life, using alcohol as medicine to drown out feelings of inadequacy, a sense that I just didn’t measure up and that I wasn’t really living life.

In “Water By The Spoonful,” one of the main characters, Elliot Ortiz, can’t forgive his mother Odessa for the years she spent using drugs and alcohol. The title comes from an incident in his childhood in Philadelphia where she, in the throes of addiction, took him and his sister to the ER when they had the flu and was sent home with the instructions to give the two kids a spoonful of water every five minutes to prevent dehydration, but she failed in her job and his sister ended up dying. Elliot’s aunt ends up raising him, and his mother does indeed get clean and sober, but he can’t forgive her. She ends up getting a job as a janitor (highly symbolic), and during her free time monitors an online site dedicated to helping crack addicts beat their addiction. Unfortunately, not only can’t Elliot forgive his mother, she can’t forgive herself, and it’s this inability to cope with the wreckage of the past that comes back to haunt her and threatens her sobriety in a vulnerable moment.

I think the lesson is that we must reconcile ourselves to the life we have lived, and we must forgive ourselves if we are to move forward and change our future from our past. I’ve been told that insanity is doing the same things over and over and expecting different results. The reality remains that we recover a day at a time, and for me, recovery means that I write–good or bad, the words accumulate a page at a time.

A Masterful Flop

The movie “The Master” is a serious film that takes itself too seriously. It is a bit repetitive in trying to make its point.

The beginning starts out promisingly, creatively, by zooming in on Joachin Phoenix’s character Freddie humping a sand-shaped figure of a girl, then shows him going off toward the ocean to masturbate. If the point of the scene was to make the audience uncomfortable, “The Master” certainly succeeded on that account.

Not only is it a bizarre start, Freddie slurs his words to the degree that Phoenix is barely understandable. I was reminded of the development of Russian theater director Konstantin Stanislavski’s, The Method, whereby the actor works to inhabit the mind of the character, a rigorous endeavor requiring dedication, discipline, and careful artistic self-analysis, and the specific words spoken take a backseat to the authentic display of the character. Marlon Brando made this method famous in the U.S., but this style of acting should be used sparingly in that it threatens to alienate the audience from relating to the main character. Both Joachin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman are masterful in their ability to fully realize their characters, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Phoenix or Hoffman were nominated for an Oscar. Hoffman won the Academy Award for best actor in 2006 for the film “Capote,” so it seems it might be Joachin Phoenix’s turn, especially after his work as Johnny Cash in “Walk the Line.” Unfortunately, “The Master” drags, and isn’t clear in the point it is trying to make. The screenplay doesn’t support the efforts of the actors.

I did, however, find myself rooting for Freddie as he gets out of the armed services and seeks to re-acclimate himself to living in society, not altogether successfully. We don’t want him to screw up his work as a photographer, but we know that things are likely to go dramatically wrong before they are righted again. Mental illness in film has been a popular topic lately, and mixed with alcoholism it makes for a potent, powerful combination of combustible characters likely to come apart, creating more tension to drive the story. Freddie makes a nearly lethal homemade brew that includes paint thinner, and his drink actually kills someone. When my dad was in the navy, an alcoholic Native American he worked with kept drinking aftershave until he dropped the concoction on the floor, then he started pounding back aviation alcohol, causing his premature death. In this respect, I could understand the desperation of the characters seeking a way out of their skin.

The two main characters meet at sea as Freddie sneaks aboard a yacht where he passes out and when he wakes up he meets Lancaster Dodd. Dodd names himself the head of a cult religion termed “The Cause,” and the master collects followers with Freddie leading the way. The movie makes subtle parallels to Scientology in its method of recruiting members.

Freddie is malleable and moldable and Lancaster Dodd makes him into his henchman. He lies to Freddie, saying, “I’m the only one that likes you.” The master is not as obvious in his emotional outbursts, but he is a dangerous man when his anger erupts, especially if followers or lay people question his approach to religion. He is scariest in his quiet moments. The question we are left to ponder is: Will Freddie leave behind his violent ways behind to carve out a decent life for himself. The audience must decide whether people can actually rise above their circumstances to make a new reality for themselves?

Critics are bound to rally around this slow moving film for its unusual subject matter and great acting, but it dragged painfully. Take a pass unless you really want to predict the Academy Awards.