The Creativity Complex

It’s been almost two weeks since Philip Seymour Hoffman’s passing, and we’ve seen almost every stage of the media grief cycle. The shock and dismay of the initial discovery, followed by the rushed statements on “influence” and “legacy;” the growing anger at suspected dealers; political campaigns co-opting his death as a case study; and of course the endless “shocking revelations” about Hoffman’s personal struggles. Oh, and now the papers are publishing his diaries.

Quite the whirlwind.

There’s one question that keeps coming up: “Why him?” The question echoes a curious disbelief in the power of addiction, and a willful ignorance of the toll that creativity takes upon artists.

At the end of his life, Francisco de Goya locked himself in a farmhouse and painted his nightmarish visions straight onto its walls. They became known as “The Black Paintings,” and were later painstakingly transferred to the Prado Museum in Madrid. Because they are magnificent.

The same can be said of Hoffman’s performances. He elevates a glum sidekick role in “Along Came Polly” to a masterclass in comedy; he brought Truman Capote to the screen in a stunning turn that the Academy couldn’t ignore; and made a brave statement about Scientology in “The Master.” He etched his soul on the proverbial farmhouse walls of the silver screen.

So yes, to see journalists poring over the grimy details of his last moments is disturbing, to say the least.

But more than that, Hoffman’s death poses an important question about how the film industry treats the individuals who make it great.

Just weeks before his death, Hoffman was at the Sundance Film Festival, doing his part to promote two of his latest films, “God’s Pocket” and “A Most Wanted Man.”

He gave us everything in every role he took, including the press junkets that made us go see them, and yet we never wondered how Hoffman was able to dive to the depths of his characters, and pull out their most compelling moments? We never wondered how he ever left those characters behind? Hoffman reportedly stayed in-character all day when he was on the set of “Capote,” in case he lost that distinctive voice – there was a reason why he was so good, and that reason was dedication.

Anybody who has ever worked in a creative role or tried to make art knows the constant battle to translate the ideal that exists in your imagination into something that can be shared and enjoyed. The relief that comes from passing on a thought or feeling or story that once felt so abstract but that is now concrete. It takes time, and pain, and anguish, and Hoffman was willing to do all of that because he knew that he had to. And maybe he found ways to deal with that pain that weren’t sustainable. And maybe it was worth it, or maybe it wasn’t.

It’s an illness, the creativity complex.

And if it had been any other illness we would have expected Hoffman’s employers to be aware of it, make allowances for it, and even build its potential costs into their budgets. A human being is not something that can be used up by an industry until they have nothing left to sustain them.

So, as the press drags out their investigation, can we spare a moment to ask ourselves why Hoffman made millions – maybe even billions – for the film industry by confronting his worst fears and demons every single day, yet none of them thought to check in with him that January, when he seemed a little distant? Will the studios and distributors and theater companies who made so much money from Hoffman’s work take any responsibility?

But that’s just a thought.

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