RIP Philip Seymour Hoffman, 1967-2014
I suppose our capacity to feel shock and sadness and even anger over the death of an actor—someone who we don’t really know, didn’t know, couldn’t know—comes through an emotional identification. I was shocked at how shocked (and saddened, and angered) I felt when I read that Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead today in his apartment in New York City penthouse.
I first saw Hoffman in 1997, in Boogie Nights, a film I watched so many times in college that it is imprinted in my mind. Hoffman played Scotty, a boom operator whose not-quite-repressed homosexuality erupts in strange emotional moments. Hoffman brought pathos and humor and understanding to the character, and we could look at it like a template for all the work he would do in the decade and a half after. Hoffman shaded even his smallest roles with depth and spirit. His Scotty could have been a leering freak, a grotesque caricature—but Hoffman knew Scotty was more than that—he made Scotty real, a person, a human whom the audience could feel.
Hoffman continued to work with Boogie Nights writer and director Paul Thomas Anderson. In Magnolia, where he again brought pathos and intensity to a minor role: “See, this is the scene in the movie where you help me out”:
Hoffman showed the extension of his range in PTA’s sharpest film, Punch Drunk Love:
But his best work with Paul Thomas Anderson in The Master, where he showcased his deep, penetrating intelligence as Lancaster Dodd:
The Master was one of the few leading film roles that Hoffman got, which perhaps makes sense if you consider the type of character he was often cast into: The creep, the weirdo, the failure, the fat friend, the obsessive. But he brought so much to those roles too, whether it was Phil Parma sneaking Penthouse into his bread order (Magnolia), yes-man Brandt’s repetitive nervous tic (The Big Lebowski), Scotty lunging for a sloppy kiss (Boogie Nights), or Sandy Lyle shooting hoops in the forgettable romcom Along Came Polly. Actually, Along Came Polly is an instructive example of just how great Hoffman could be—he raised the film, was easily the best thing about it, bringing depth to his character (a failed former child actor) and adding the term sharting to the lexicon.
Hoffman was also the best thing about his first major lead role in a film, Capote, where he played the titular writer.
Hoffman played another writer in Charlie Kaufman’s messy postmodernist riddle Synecdoche, New York. Hoffman played Caden Cotard, a theater director whose ambition is to produce a play so utterly real that it transcends fiction. In his commitment to this project, Cotard essentially misses his own life.
Despite these lead roles, Hoffman will likely be remembered as a character actor, but one who surpasses the, “Hey, it’s that guy” label. He’s a cult actor, and with good reason. His death is so sad in part because Hoffman felt like one of us: One of the freaks and the weirdos, one of the guys on the margins, awkward, maybe, but also deeply real, with a soul, with an intellect, with talents that might not announce themselves in the form of rippling muscles or perfect hair. He was often the only thing worth watching in bad or mediocre movies (Charlie Wilson’s War and Cold Mountain come to mind), and he elevated good movies to great movies—I don’t think Spike Lee’s 25th Hour could have been nearly as compelling without Hoffman’s sensitive, flawed friend there as an anchor to Norton’s overcharged performance; he also provided a cynical ballast as Lester Bangs to Cameron Crowe’s airy memoir, Almost Famous. Hoffman was electric when playing against type, as in Sidney Lumet’s too-overlooked thriller, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, in which he played the alpha male with savage aplomb (he’d refine the characterization in some ways for his portrayal of Lancaster Dodd in The Master).
But as always with these things—and by these things I mean the deaths of the famous, of actors, of musicians, of etc.—always the sadness we might feel is perhaps born of a selfishness—yes, the reminder of my own mortality, your own mortality implicit within the actor’s death, sure, but in Hoffman’s case something more I think, here too—that we know that this guy was great, was Capital G Great, was almost always the best thing in any film he was in, was smarter and deeper than the script often had a right to lay claim to, that he improved anything he was in, that he compelled the viewer’s attention, that he was so young, that he was so, so young, that he still had so many films ahead of him, so many great works ahead of him, so many years ahead of him…