Silver screen’s ‘giant’ talent killed by drugs

Burning too bright: Hoffman excelled in depicting tormented souls.

Cinema is mourning the loss of Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of its leading stars. It is a familiar story of excess: are the extraordinarily gifted always cursed with extraordinary suffering?

Philip Seymour Hoffman is known for portraying troubled characters, but the final act of his own life ended tragically on Sunday as the 46-year-old died of a drug overdose.

The New Yorker was a favourite with film critics and had stockpiled 73 awards, including a much coveted Oscar, Golden Globe and BAFTA. His work was varied but constantly distinguished; he also won several trophies for his performance in ‘Capote’ and wide acclaim for his philosophical role in ‘Synecdoche, New York’. He had recently returned to playing the mysterious Plutarch Heavensbee in ‘Mockingjay’ for the next installment in The Hunger Games series.

Hoffman was most renowned for playing a self-loathing outsider; his strength was in pouring personal anguish into the emotionally charged roles he took. His own early life was a struggle and by 22 he was an alcoholic addicted to heroin. He said of himself, ‘I was moody, mercurial… it was all or nothing.’ His demons raged just below the surface of his screen personas, but in recent years they overwhelmed him, and in 2012 he was back in rehab.

The actor follows a long line of performers and artists whose creativity sprang from personal trauma. Gifted singer Amy Winehouse took an overdose in 2011 and rock icon Kurt Cobain committed suicide in 1994. The annals of artistic achievement are filled with others, from screen legend Marlon Brando to The Beatles’ John Lennon and Paul McCartney, who bonded following the deaths of their mothers. The Romantic mainstays Keats, Shelley and Byron lived a mere 92 years between them, and after the loss of his eyesight and death of his wife, Milton dictated Paradise Lost to his daughters.

Many of our most celebrated creative geniuses have been afflicted with maladies of the mind or body. More contentious, however, is whether these artists could have been as great as they were had they not suffered at all. Sadly for Philip Seymour Hoffman, the struggle behind his gift proved to be fatal.

Angels with demons

Some argue it is absurd to say suffering alone is the secret of great art. It is hard to find an untroubled artist, perhaps, but how easy is it to find anyone whose life is completely free of difficulty? Clearly other ingredients are more important. Writers could produce many more great works if they could just live comfortably and write; the most vital thing for an artist’s CV is several years of disciplined application.

But others counter that an artist can only know the world through experiencing its darker side. Creativity is more powerful if it springs from deep emotion. Shelley celebrated Prometheus because he represented the struggle and self-sacrifice required to give mankind civilisation. Suffering may well hurt, but it also teaches, and its lessons are the gifts of great art.

You Decide

  1. Is it better to suffer for fame or live happy in anonymity?
  2. Are famous drug addicts treated more sympathetically than ordinary sufferers?


  1. As a class, imagine a world with no problems. What sort of art would such a society produce?
  2. Write a poem, song or story about a time when you were suffering, real or imagined. Are you stronger from the experience or was it destructive?

Some People Say...

“Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety nine percent perspiration.’Thomas Edison”

What do you think?

Q & A

I would like to be a great artist without the suffering.
It’s hard for anyone to avoid all suffering, but many artists have had happy lives and avoided direct turmoil themselves. The ‘father of English poetry’ Geoffrey Chaucer led an interesting and varied life, acting as a diplomat in Spain, briefly serving as an MP, and being given ‘a gallon of wine daily for the rest of his life’ by King Edward III.
So there are happy creative types?
Absolutely. Paul Newman, the actor, had a happy, stable family life, and there are plenty of other examples: Sean Connery, Johnny Depp and Ian McKellen have glittering careers without the drugs and trouble. For every high-profile troubled soul like Vincent van Gogh, there are thousands of other artists working happily and leading long, fulfilled lives.

Word Watch

Rehabilitation services are vital for helping drug addicts get their problems under control. Drug addicts are not punished for entering rehab and most entries are voluntary. In the UK for every ten people who enter rehab each year, three overcome dependency, one fails and six proceed to other forms of community support.
As Milton had lost his sight when he came to compose his grand epic in the late 1650s, he had to tell his daughters what to write for him. This was quite a feat for a poem of over 10,000 lines.
In Greek mythology, Prometheus was a Titan who stole fire from the gods in order to give it to mankind. This led to mankind developing civilisation. In punishment, Zeus had Prometheus tied to a rock and had an eagle come to peck out his liver. Every day the liver would grow back and the eagle would return. In the romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley’s presentation of the story, Prometheus Unbound, Prometheus is a visionary hero who suffers to enlighten mankind, which reflects how Shelley saw his own role as a poet.

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