Tainted Idols: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Heath Ledger And Their Message To A Lost Generation

by Greg Dybec

Every few months, like clockwork, I find myself participating in the same lighthearted debate with my roommate. As if scripted, a question as simple as “What movie should we watch tonight?” will find the momentum to transform into the much larger question, “Did Philip Seymour Hoffman deserve to win the Oscar for Best Actor over Heath Ledger in 2006?”

My answer has always been a definitive, "Yes." For years I’ve held Hoffman’s portrayal of a meek, yet factually-larger-than-life, Capote to be the greatest performance from a living actor I’ve ever seen. And now, after the news of his death begins to settle in, it’s becoming clearer and clearer that, like Ledger, Hoffman possessed both an innate skill and self-effacing celebrity quality that this generation deserves and should continue to expect from the great talents we look up to.

When examining Hoffman’s extraordinary career in film and theater, following this tragic loss to addiction, we see an example of an ordinary man capable of great feats and equally great flaws.

Like Ledger, the personal demons that ultimately consumed Hoffman were not great consequences of exaggerated celebrity culture or Bieber-esque escapades. Rather, their deaths are strong examples of the power of addiction as a real disease.

Naturally, any celebrated personality that departs in such a manner leaves us with the ultimate lesson in raised awareness for addiction and a stark reminder that those suffering similar afflictions should seek the help they need.

Though, for a generation deemed lost, yet ripe with a mixture of self-starters, economic hardships and individuals with a desire to leave their passionate mark, both Hoffman and Ledger leave us with legacies worth examining, whether you’re an aspiring artist or not.

Both Hoffman and Ledger were keen on straying away from the public eye and typical stardom. Hoffman, a man who himself expressed disdain toward how easily he was able to gain weight, almost seemed destined to fly under the radar of celebrities we tend to gawk at.

Ledger -- who could have possessed the attributes of Matthew McConaughey’s laughable alter ego who sometimes does films like "Magic Mike" when not dabbling in rapid weight loss and sublime, Oscar-worthy performances -- was determined from the start to avoid the role of Hollywood heartthrob.

Following a role in “The 10 Things I Hate About You,” the Australian-accented, short-sleeved, cigarette-smoking Ledger chose the eclectic route of artistic self-discovery over the easy path to mainstream celebrity stature.

What both Hoffman and Ledger have in common is that they are two recent examples of immense talents that chose to project work ethic, dedication and divine aptitude for their craft over anything else.

In today’s mainstream celebrity market, which consists of one too many stripper-licking, egg-throwing young adults, it’s easy for a generation to forget that talent relies on consistent personal growth and experiences outside of one’s comfort zone.

We are often bombarded with the spoils of what hard work can ultimately lead to in today’s culture, as opposed to the idea of sustained work ethic and a desire to continue succeeding by pushing oneself to new limits, which were the qualities that Hoffman and Ledger undoubtedly displayed through their timeless work.

Hoffman’s work was so well-known among this generation because it was so diverse throughout the industry. I’m aware that many of my peers may not have marveled at Hoffman’s energetic growl in "Charlie Wilson’s War," but they may know him as the spastically clever Sandy Lyle in “Along Came Polly,” or the comically refined Brandt in “The Big Lebowski.”

And that is just fine with me, because Hoffman was as unafraid to chase a "Twister" in 1996 as he was to step into the shoes of Truman Capote in 2005, and that in itself is a product of a steadfast, evolving determination to grow and create.

The same respect for the exploratory nature of the artistic side of the film industry resided in Ledger. We can marvel at his smooth-talking, bad boy demeanor in “10 Things…” while we gasp at his haunting self-destruction as a drug addict in “Candy.” And to think, the man who has been immortalized as The Joker, Batman’s greatest nemesis, was chosen for the role based off his performance as a gay cowboy alongside Jake Gyllenhaal in “Brokeback Mountain.”

Fearlessness goes a long way.

At the end of the day, film is one of our culture’s greatest common denominators. Whether we’re harsh critics or looking for something to fall asleep to, the people who inhabit our screens are key factors in our daily lives, whether we like it not.

For a generation so “tuned in,” this is especially true, which makes idols – as flawed as they may be – like Hoffman and Ledger, who possessed the ability to step outside the traditional path of industry success and still find the personal success they desired, even more important.

Hoffman was as willing to step into a role with two minutes of screen time and steal the show, as he was capable of leading award-winning films, which he did with majestic dedication.

Ledger was able to turn a cold shoulder to the roles that would have made him a Freddie Prinze, Jr. on steroids, and yet, he was still able to find the success in personal growth and perpetual recreation of himself that he always desired.

Now, both men are remembered not for an aura of Hollywood limelight, but for the obvious and thoroughly appreciated rawness that comes along with giving yourself fully to something you believe in.

For a generation of people who feel as if they are perpetually on the brink of a meltdown, with a strong desire to start new without seeing a task fully through, these performances can be taken as subtle reminders. After all, we’re going to watch movies, anyway.

The personal demons that led to each man’s early demise act as a hard nudge on the shoulder, as if to say, remember that no person is perfect and no life is devoid of personal struggle.

Hoffman transformed from a man with a bouncing gut that hung over the front of his jeans and a rumbling deep voice that projected from his mouth with the roar of a car starting on a cold day, to inhabit the persona of Truman Capote, a man of small physical stature with the voice of a scared mouse and the wispy demeanor of a social lion.

Hoffman took away an award for it. We can take away the fact that no matter how great the challenge, we are in control of the goals we set for ourselves, and we always have the power to reinvent ourselves.

In a tainted world, we can take away a lot from our tainted idols.

Top Photo Credit: WENN