The Secret Life … Philip Seymour Hoffman, and “Owning Mahowny”

“Some folks believe everyone has a public life, a private life, and a secret life.”

That’s the opening line of “Owning Mahowny,” a 2003 film about gambling addiction and subsequent bank fraud that was based on a true story.

1982. Brian Molony, a banker from Toronto, embezzled $10.2 million from his employer, the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce.  Gary Stephen Ross wrote “Stung,” a book about Molony’s exploits, which inspired a movie, ““Owning Mahowny”,” directed by Richard Kwietniowski. The names were changed and Philip Seymour Hoffman played the protagonist Dan Mahowny, based on Molony.

Phillip Seymour HoffmanHoffman is considered one of the most brilliant actors of his generation because he exposed the unsavory side of humanity with impeccable realism. ““Owning Mahowny”” was one of the late actor’s most underrated performances with a disturbingly accurate portrayal of a degenerate gambler. We’ve all encountered anguished losers like Mahowny on uber-tilt at the poker tables, burning money at the craps table, chasing bunk tips at the track, or sulking off a bad beat in the darkest corner of the sports book.

Hoffman made it painful to watch Mahowny’s descent into gambling hell without getting a nauseating feeling in your stomach. Hoffman morphed into a possessed zombie in the throes of addiction. If Mahowny wasn’t actually gambling, he was agonizing about the next time he could gamble, or fabricating excuses why he blew off his girlfriend, or concocting ways to skim money from his bank. When you’re surrounded with enablers and have unfettered access to millions of dollars, that’s a recipe for disaster.

When does an affinity become a bleak obsession? The harshest aspects of gambling addiction were explored in “Owning Mahowny.” The shame. The humiliation. The embarrassment. The loneliness. The desperation. A despondent Mahowny had become a prisoner in his own convoluted world. The delusional Mahowny was incapable of stopping and honestly thought he was one massive winning streak away from turning around his misfortunes.

Mahowny’s initial woes began with a modest five-figure theft to cover a bad run at the race track. He relentlessly chased his losses, which quickly escalated from thousands into millions. The only way he could dig himself out of a hole? Keep gambling. To replenish his constantly busto bankroll, Mahowny circumnavigated his bank’s lending policies and skimmed millions of dollars from his bank through dummy accounts or inactive accounts.

Compulsive gambling is soulless gambling. What happens when you’re busto for the hundredth time and owe bookies money, but you have the jones to keep gambling? You either quit, or turn to crime to raise quick cash (via drugs, prostitution, or theft). Robbing a bank is easy … if it’s an inside job.

Mahowny got sucked into the gambler’s quagmire: the more he lost, the bigger he had to bet to recoup his losses. Trying to erase the loss in one big session had exponentially escalated his losses. Mahowny really thought he could win his way out of a multi-million-dollar cold streak, which is why he kept gambling. Full speed ahead. Consumed by his morbid and vulgar obsession, he got too greedy. He didn’t know when to stop gambling and more importantly, he did not know when to stop stealing. Mahowny was digging his own grave and stuck in a pathetic, yet vicious cycle. It was only a matter of time before he got caught. Any sane person would have seen the obvious writing on the wall, but when you’ve become inflicted with the “sickness,” you lose all semblance of reality and it’s impossible to gain any perspective.

Problem gamblers with deteriorated morals have an oblique penchant for lying, deception, and manipulation. They steal with impunity because they have the incapacity for remorse or guilt. Irreverent behavior is justified in their twisted reality because wiping out their losses becomes their moral imperative.

Addiction has many faces. Mahowny was not your stereotypical schlep who slept in his car, hung out at the track all day and hustled drunken frat boys in pool halls at night. On the surface, Mahowny appeared to be a highly intelligent executive and an upstanding member of society. He was the youngest assistant manager in the history of his prestigious bank, yet beneath the surface, he was a man who blindly bet all the underdogs on a full slate of Canadian Football League games.

Mahowny’s local bookie was also an amateur shrink, “He wants to win so he has money to lose.”

Compulsive gamblers are so demented that they become intoxicated with the misery associated with losing. Degens need to lose in order to feel like they’re alive. It’s a severe psychological defect.

In order to feel pleasure, I must experience pain. That’s logic from a stone-cold junkie.

Why does Mahowny make risky decisions like embezzling and gambling more than he can afford to lose? Typically, problem gamblers have a propensity to take unnecessary risks because of an unresolved issue pertaining to self-hatred, emotional loss, or dejection. The refusal to work out those poignant personal issues is the major source of conflict that rears its ugly head later in life.

Mahowny spent every waking moment consumed with gambling and devoted every cent to fulfilling his pursuit. Mahowny drove a beat-down jalopy even though he was pulling in high salary. Mahowny lugged around a tattered briefcase and clients poked fun at his out-of-date, grubby wardrobe. Most big-shot bankers wore slicker threads and drove fancy cars, but the raffish Mahowny saw those as unnecessary expenses.

Show me a degen and I’ll show you a host of enablers. Mahowny was surrounded by enablers including his girlfriend (Minnie Driver), who was in complete denial and made excuses for his deplorable and selfish behavior, like the time he ignored dinner guests to sweat a $30,000 wager on a college basketball game. Mahowny’s co-workers overlooked suspicious behavior including excessive activity on previously inactive accounts and shoddy paperwork. Even his best friend failed to lure Mahowny away from the dark side of addiction during a trip to Atlantic City. Mahowny went on a heater at the blackjack tables and handed over $40,000 to his friend for safe keeping.

“Don’t give them back no matter what I say, you understand? Come back in an hour or two and I’ll have more for you.”

Of course, that never happened. Mahowny went busto and frantically hunted down his friend playing low-limit slots. He demanded his money and accused his friend of being a jinx.

“You brought a curse to the table. Stay away from me!”

Mahowny lost the rest of his money playing heads-up blackjack.

The VIP host (played by John Hurt) in Atlantic City was your typical ruthless gaming executive who did not care for his customer’s well-being. When Mahowny walked through the front door, all the host could see were dollar signs. Once someone is tagged as a whale in the casino industry, they’ll be hunted down and fleeced for every cent they have. What happens after the whale lost millions and he returned for more punishment? Nothing. That’s exactly what they want. If the gambler’s reloaded roll was acquired by nefarious or illegal methods, then the casino looked the other way.

“I don’t want to know how he got it,” said the VIP host.

A man obsessed. A man possessed. Mahowny had gambling myopia and brushed aside the perks of achieving “high roller” status. He ignored comped concert tickets (to the Pointer Sisters), free top-notch cuisine, and even rebuffed the kinky advances of a high-class escort.

“Only lady I’m interested in is lady luck,” Mahowny said as he kicked out the working girl.

“No sex, no booze, no drugs?” said the VIP host. “Our little roller is a purist. He’s a thoroughbred. He only cares about the next hand. He’s a beauty. I love him!”

In one of the most disturbing scenes in the film, Mahowny frantically contacted his bookie and wagered $1,000 on every game on the baseball schedule … without knowing the starting pitchers or the odds.

“Bet all the home teams in the National (League). All the away teams in the American (League).”

Mahowny’s local bookie in Toronto wanted to sever their relationship when Mahowny got stuck $10,300. You know it’s a bad situation when a bookie cuts you off, especially a super-mush like Mahowny.

Mahowny’s friends and co-workers completely missed or ignored the obvious signs of distress, but the only one sincerely looking out for him was his bookie. A bookie gets rich off degen behavior, but Mahowny sunk to such an embarrassing low that the bookie had to cut him off for his own good. Sad case when a bookie is the film’s moral compass.

“I’m cutting you off for your own good. If you can’t look after for yourself, I’m going to have to do it for you,” scolded the bookie.

“What am I supposed to do? Go to the track and watch?” More junkie logic.

Mahowny’s girlfriend was a glutton for punishment. Drowning in mega-debt, Mahowny swiped 500K from his bank and flew to Vegas for the weekend to try to get unstuck. He took his girlfriend, but she totally misunderstood the purpose of the trip. When the casino comped them a room in a honeymoon suite, including mirrors on the ceiling, she assumed Mahowny whisked her off to Vegas to get married.

Within minutes of checking in, Mahowny said he was going for a walk, but he disappeared for several hours while he left his girlfriend in the room. She found Mahowny in the middle of a rush at the high-limit craps table. His end of the table was roped off, while a crowd gathered at the other end. When she approached, a security guard quickly swooped in. Mahowny didn’t even make eye contact. He eyes were locked onto the dice on the felt. He was in full-blown zombie mode.

“A couple more minutes … I’m on a roll,” he barked.

Ushered off by security, his jilted girlfriend finally had enough. She fled Vegas and flew home to Toronto. With his girlfriend no longer a distraction, Mahowny finally went on a rare streak of good luck. He left Vegas with a huge score but wired money to the cage in AC. The VIP host was ecstatic. He knew Mahowny would eventually donk off all of his Vegas winnings at his casino.

When Mahowny’s girlfriend finally confronted him, he coldly replied, “I don’t have a gambling problem … I have a financial problem.”

This was the same man who broke the bank at Baccarat betting $70,000 a hand, but was not disciplined enough to walk away from the craps tables when he was up $9 million.

“Quit while you’re ahead” is a cliché absent from the vocabulary of addicts. In order to lose big, you have to win big. That’s the entire crux of being a gambling addict; you’re addicted to losing.

Mahowny was finally caught, but not before he embezzled $10.2 million and gambled away every cent. Blackjack. Craps. Roulette. Horseracing. Sportsbetting. Baccarat. With every bet, he got deeper and deeper into debt. He went to jail and supposedly never made another bet again with the help of Gambler’s Anonymous.

While on a press junket promoting “Owning Mahowny,” actor Philip Seymour Hoffman shared his insight into the unhinged mind of Mahowny. “He lives to feed the beast and it gets him farther away from reality, intimacy and life. To me, it’s not even about gambling. It’s about a man and how he behaves in this pressurized world he has created for himself. There is no relief for this guy. It’s about a man who cuts off his feelings at the same time his girlfriend comes at him harder. Life comes at him harder, too, but he can only think about his addiction.”

Compulsive gambling is not something that can be turned on and off like a switch. Well-adjusted people can differentiate between good or bad. They have a grasp of moral hazard and understand the repercussions of their decisions. Gamblers inflicted with the sickness have lost the capacity to assess risky and problematic behavior, which is why they live in a perpetual anarchist state of immorality. It’s not that addicts ignore the OFF button. In their world, there is no OFF button. The switch only has one setting. ON.

March 2014