Like so many people I’m saddened by the loss of actor Philip Hoffman who succumbed to an apparent drug overdose this weekend. It’s SOP to sing the praises of anyone after they’re gone, but in this case some singing is warranted. Watching some of the clips of Hoffman in various films last night and today, I was struck by two observations: in several cases, his transformation into the role was so complete, the original editor of Creem magazine in Almost Famous (Who incidentally, did die of a drug overdose) or the trust fund kid in The Talented Mr. Ripley, that I didn’t even know it was him playing the part until now. Second, in those roles and others, his performance was so superb, even as a relatively minor supporting actor, that I remembered them, he drew me in with an authenticity that just popped right out of the screen.
That being said, I have to ponder and wonder, had a Latino ball-player or black musician of equivalent talent been found dead in a luxury apartment, surrounded by half empty packets of smack and pill bottles, with an emptied syringe sticking out of their stiff, cold arm for chrissake, would media be so kind? Because I suspect there would be significant elements in the news and general communities who would shrug it off as “uppity fucking nigger got what was coming to them.”
Hoffman had every resource at his disposal to luxuriously, painlessly, deal with substance abuse, including the king of them all, opiate withdrawal, without suffering the usual hardships middle class nobodies would face and none of the horrors inflicted on the poor. Hoffman could have been on all kinds of maintenance, had his physical symptoms medicated out of existence by a suite of drugs administered safely by addiction specialist MDs, enjoyed the luxury of having every thought and whim of self-pity catered to by an entire staff of psychologists, and then, buoyed by celebrity and fans, he could have cashed in with a best-seller autobiography and eventual film about his courageous battle that would have garnered global hero praise on the Dr. Phil and Oprah circuit. Hoffman is one of a tiny group of lucky people who are uniquely positioned to make more money off a long-term smack habit than it cost over the years.
Heroin is diacetylmorphine, a drug with two deadly attributes — aside from the obvious risks. It quickly produces tolerance in regular users, they’re able to use more and more, so when they quit and then relapse and quit again, over time, it’s not uncommon when an OD results. I’m also told the margin between the effective dose, what the user needs to achieve the desired high, and the lethal dose that will stop heart and lungs dead in their tracks, is much smaller for heroin than it is for many other street drugs. Put those two things together and deadly overdoses are an eventual certainty. But he was clearly an experienced user, 46 years-old at that, he should have and probably did know better.
I’m not glad Hoffman died, not a bit, there is no lesson here — at least there are a lot worse way to go than high as a kite on a drug that is said to heavenly — nor is there any more dishonor in dying in that manner than when an adrenaline junkie dies from an illegal BASE jump. But just like a jumper, and assuming he didn’t inject rat poison or antifreeze sold as heroin, or suffer a freak allergic reaction, Hoffman has only himself to blame.