Earlier this week, we lost a great actor and a wonderful member of the film community. Philip Seymour Hoffman was a tremendous man who made an impression not by highlighting his public life or by beaming from magazine covers but by consistently delivering an intensity to his performances that left an indelible mark in audiences’ minds. With his often unruly shock of white-blond hair, kind blue eyes, and wry grin, Hoffman always brought a quiet gravitas to the screen that made him a joy to watch from his minor roles in the early ’90’s to some of his later, greatest roles that garnered him award nominations as both a stellar supporting actor and protagonist. Hoffman became the characters he played, and he often played troubled characters with elements of existential angst. Roles like this would take a toll on even the healthiest actor. Hoffman told the New York Times,
For me, acting is torturous, and it’s torturous because you know it’s a beautiful thing. I was young once, and I said, “That’s beautiful and I want that.” Wanting it is easy, but trying to be great — well, that’s absolutely torturous.
When watching Hoffman completely transform himself into the effete yet eloquent Truman Capote, a sinisterly charming Hubbard-esque patriarch, or a neurotic play director obsessed with staging reality, you got the sense of an actor whose craft was a very personal, enveloping endeavor. Hoffman became such an esteemed actor because, while he was able to carry scenes on his own, he had the sort of reserved style that builds scenes with other actors. This was most likely as a result of his work on stage which he continued alongside his career in film. I’d describe it as a sort of kinetic energy between him and his costars that elevates excellent performances into something even greater. Just watch his climactic scene opposite Meryl Streep in Doubt, or any of the scenes he shared with Joaquin Phoenix in The Master, a flawed film that nevertheless had peerless performances.
The saddest part about Hoffman’s death is that it was the result of addiction and drug use; sadder still is the fact that Hoffman had taken steps to combat his own behavior. He had recovered from drug and alcohol addiction in his early 20s, but relapsed recently and sought rehabilitation in 2013. Hoffman’s 2011 reflections to the Guardian on his earlier addiction were eerily prescient:
I had no interest in drinking in moderation. And I still don’t. Just because all that time’s passed doesn’t mean maybe it was just a phase. That’s you know, that’s who I am.
As it has been with many great people who’ve lost their lives due to drugs well before their time, it’s natural to have mixed emotions. There is always the knee-jerk reaction to both pity those whose lives drugs have ruined and to be upset at them for letting it happen. I’m deeply sympathetic for Hoffman’s long-time partner and three young children who will be the most deeply affected by this tragedy. I’m saddened that Hoffman had aspirations that we will never see bear fruit.
In a situation like this, I think it is best to celebrate this wonderful man’s career and not to dwell on his shortcomings. Over the past few days I’ve rewatched my favorite performances by Hoffman, and watched a few of his movies that I’ve always meant to watch but never gotten the opportunity to do. Aside from the films already mentioned, I’d recommend the minor masterpiece Synecdoche, New York, not only because it showcases Hoffman’s potential as a leading man, but because it is a harrowing reflection of human existence, an unsettling look at life, love, decay, and solipsism that’s hauntingly beautiful in its portrayal of one man’s descent from middle-age to death. For lighter fare, give Pirate Radio a watch. It’s a charming film about a ship stationed off the coast of Britain in the ’60’s that hosts the crew of a rock n’ roll radio station illegally transmitting over British airwaves. Hoffman is the token American among the stellar British cast, and it is a joy from start to finish, with some excellent music to boot.
What is your favorite performance from Philip Seymour Hoffman? I’ve included links to many of his films in ACPL’s collection, and I encourage everyone to watch one in remembrance of this phenomenal actor.