Philip Seymour Hoffman is Dead
He crept up on you. To the casual fan of film and television, the first impression that Philip Seymour Hoffman gave was as a serviceable character actor who could add meat to any good story and then get out of the lead’s way when it came time for the real scenery chewing. His first acting role was as an accused rapist on a Law and Order episode in 1991. It took four more years for him to decide whether his credit should be Philip Hoffman, Philip S. Hoffman, or Philip Seymour Hoffman. And then, as if touched by the Power Cosmic, Philip Seymour Hoffman spent the last 20 years of his life dominating nearly every production in which he appeared.
Hoffman’s portrayal of the spineless and conniving George Willis Jr. in 1992’s Scent of a Woman turned a few heads, but it wasn’t until 1996’s summer blockbuster Twister, as the long-haired and enthusiastically hyper tornado chaser Dustin Davis, that Hoffman had the opportunity to truly play on the national stage. A year later came his real breakthrough via the perpetually yearning ball of pure awkwardness that was Scotty J. in Paul Thomas Anderson’s contemporary masterpiece Boogie Nights. And then it was if you couldn’t not find the guy stealing the show somewhere. In 1998, Hoffman played the sycophantic Brandt in The Big Lebowski, all grimaces, stutters, and veiled irritation. A year after that, he more than held his own in Magnolia, an ensemble piece packed with the likes of Tom Cruise, William H. Macy, Philip Baker Hall, Julianne Moore, Jason Robards, and Alfred Molina. A year after that, he nearly stole the show as savagely-straight-talking and unabashedly “uncool” Lester Bangs in Almost Famous. Suddenly, everybody noticed that the galumphy, pasty background actor from Rochester was hanging with the best of them.
To list every single role that Hoffman aced would be a fool’s errand. You and I just don’t have that kind of time. The conflicted drag queen in Flawless. The smirking phone sex “supervisor”/bully in Punch Drunk Love (Hoffman’s fourth go-round with director Paul Thomas Anderson). Compulsive gambler Dan Mahowny in Owning Mahoney. The effeminate and mesmerizing Truman Capote in Capote (for which Hoffman won an Oscar). The deliciously over-the-top villainous Owen Davian in Mission Impossible III. The scheming and ruthless white collar criminal Andy Hanson in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. The emotionally stunted loner Jon Savage in The Savages. The hilariously unhinged CIA agent Gust Avrakotos in Charlie Wilson’s War. The deeply damaged and melancholy Caden Cotard in Synecdoche, New York (one of my all-time favorite roles and films). The friendly but secretive Father Flynn in Doubt. The mercurial and magnetic Lancaster Dodd in The Master (his fifth PTA role). The opaque rebel Plutarch Heavensbee in Catching Fire. One would be hard pressed to find a 15-year stretch in any actor’s career that was so filled to the brim with stolen scenes and captivating performances.
And yesterday Philip Seymour Hoffman died. Early reports suggest that the 46-year-old father of three was found in his Manhattan apartment, syringe still joined firmly with vein, gone from an overdose of heroin. A heartbreaking story, all the more so because Hoffman surely had years left on his body of work, if not decades. Future roles in which he would have again hypnotized us with his oratory and grandeur and subtlety and humor are now lost in time, swept away like so much incorporeal ephemera, never to see the light of day. Hoffman’s early 20s were marked by his dependence on heroin, but he managed to beat the habit when his career began hitting its near-unrivaled stride. That’s the thing about drugs, though. It’s a bitch. And once let inside, the bitch’s seductive whisper is always on the other side of the door, patiently waiting for a moment of weakness until the day you die. Or until it kills you first. Those weaker and stronger than Philip Seymour Hoffman have caved and let her in, even years later. And they will continue to do so. Thus is life.
But this article is not meant to be a treatise on the dangers of illicit drugs or a smear piece on a pitiable junkie. It’s an appreciation of a man who went before his time, but who left one hell of a gift to remember him by. In my personal estimation, there are few contemporary actors who can rival Philip Seymour Hoffman in raw talent, dedication to the craft, and ability to hypnotize an audience. Daniel Day-Lewis for one. Tom Hanks. Probably Joaquin Phoenix. Maaaaaybe Christian Bale or Kevin Spacey. And then the list gets very short indeed.
But I digress. Wherever you may rank him, it’s not a matter of opinion to say that Hoffman’s passing is an incalculable loss to the acting profession. He was an unfathomable talent. He was brilliant. He was (screw the pun) a master. Minuscule consolation, of course, but there are a few final projects that remain for us to see the great PSH for the last time: espionage thriller A Most Wanted Man (which premiered at the recent Sundance Film Festival) and the Hunger Games two-part swansong Mockingjay. It is all but confirmed that Hoffman had finished his work on Mockingjay: Part 1, but his place in the production timeline on Part 2 is still unclear as of this article.
I will miss Philip Seymour Hoffman. Terribly. And now it’s time to say goodbye. So let me leave you with a quote from Hoffman’s role in Synecdoche, New York, a devastatingly beautiful and deeply cutting film that will only cut more deeply now that he is gone:
“We’re all hurtling towards death. Yet here we are, for the moment, alive; each of us knowing we’re going to die, each of us secretly believing we won’t.”
Goodbye, Philip Seymour Hoffman. You’ll never die.