When I heard the news Sunday that Philip Seymour Hoffman, 46, was found dead in his New York City apartment, I was stunned speechless at first. Then I felt absolutely gutted. It was only a week ago I was watching Punch Drunk Love and witnessing a classic Hoffman freak-out (see Charlie Wilson’s War too), the type where he erupts into a hilarious cursing fit and his arms gesture with tyrannical authority, his face turns bright red, and his voice swells as if he’s giving a mad sermon. He turns a simple “No, fuck you!” to Adam Sandler’s socially inept Barry Egan into a powerhouse punch of moral degradation. And that was Hoffman’s incredible gift, he took the simplest of lines and the most troubled of characters – be it a music critic, a priest, a cult leader, a novelist, a CIA operative, etc. – and made them matter in the most human and deeply-felt of ways. He was who his character was. He made his character’s pain, confusion, suffering, bewilderment, oppression, and various other problems and triumphs into your own. Whether you could sympathize with a character or not, his work reached off the screen and grabbed you, shook you, made you feel something. Even when he was failing miserably to make a basketball shot in forgettable Ben Stiller comedies like Along Came Polly, he was making you feel passion for the lovable loser inside all of us.
Hoffman was a supreme talent, inarguably one of the best actors of this or any generation. With his straw blonde hair, gravely muffled voice, and doughy build, Hoffman was miles away from the handsomeness of Marlon Brando and Daniel Day-Lewis, and he never really became a headlining star, yet his character-actor talents were just as bold, visceral, and daring as those two. He was a chameleon if there ever was one, creating one diverse, wholly unique character after another, and I think that’s why his passing has reverberated with such ferocity and pain throughout both film circles and the general public. You never necessarily knew you were about to watch a Philip Seymour Hoffman movie (especially in his early years in films like Almost Famous), but the minute his face turned up on screen you knew you were in good hands, that the movie would now have a rich, relatable soul, and you were also intrigued and mystified, ready to follow his character through whatever obstacles he might face. Each role – Boogie Nights, 25th Hour, Almost Famous, Moneyball, Capote, Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, Synecdoche New York, Doubt, Talented Mr. Ripley, The Big Lebowski, The Master, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire – showcased such emotional depth on radical ends of the spectrum that losing him feels like losing someone very personal, someone who has opened up to you in a very intimate and emotional way, someone you’ve shared comedic highs and dramatic lows with, someone you’ve seen as a front and center Oscar winner and as a quiet, integral ensemble player.
For reasons stated above, Hoffman’s passing has shaken me more than any other industry related death in recent memory. When young stars like Heath Ledger and Paul Walker passed away, the shock of not seeing their careers blossom any further was hard to come to terms with. When a star like James Gandolfini unexpectedly died, it was heartbreaking knowing we’d never see the many other talented sides of Tony Soprano, some of which were about to be showcased in gems like Enough Said. But Hoffman is a case entirely different for me; he was an actor of magnetic versatility, so much so that his diverse performances revealed a lifetime’s worth of emotional angles. He had made you laugh, he had made you cry, he had made you feel happiness, distress, confusion, optimism, passion, pain, and purpose. He had brought colorful characters to life, he had won an Oscar, and then he bloomed even further, taking on larger, more central characters in his movies. He had spent 25 years crafting such an iconic, all-encompassing repertoire that the prospect of not seeing what the next 25 years will hold is beyond tragic. It’s unfathomable. His career could’ve gone in any direction at any moment and that was the undisputed thrill of Philip Seymour Hoffman. You never knew what he would turn up in next, what genre his next film would be or what character he’d take on, but you loved it, you really loved it when you saw his face on the screen or got news of his next project. Who else could go from a little seen gem like The Savages to the polarizing triumph The Master to this year’s biggest blockbuster The Hunger Games: Catching Fire with such potent consistency? What would he do next? How would he reinvent his craft? With every performance he would take you somewhere new. You never saw the same Philip Seymour Hoffman performance twice. I can guarantee it.
I grew up watching and falling madly in love with Hoffman as early as middle school. He made very specific acting choices that breathed a life and history into his characters that made them resonate and stand out. Each of his performances were so rich and nuanced, it was as if his character had been living an entire life before the cameras started rolling. Like many, Boogie Nights was the wow moment. As Scotty J., the closeted mike operator who develops a crush on Mark Whalberg’s Dirk Diggler, Hoffman was the epitome of the film’s focus on dreamers in warped realities. When his efforts to impress Diggler with a car and a kiss backfire, the humiliation and crushing defeat in Hoffman’s “I’m a fucking idiot!” tirade is soul shattering. Scotty isn’t just condemning himself in that moment – the image of Hoffman slapping his head over-and-over-and-over is still seared into my brain – he’s speaking directly to all us of, the dreamers who fantasize for the things that end up slapping us right in the face. Hoffman would go on to have a remarkable career full of independent darlings (his work in Doubt and The Master still gives me chills with its conflictions of charismatic warmth and menacing evil) and blockbusters, his latest work in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire being a tremendous example of his ability to effortlessly fit into an ensemble and still leave his intriguing mark.
What is uniform across his performances is that he never demanded your attention, he earned it. Hoffman had an ‘every guy’ quality that made him usable for any part in a picture, and his realization of that character’s part within the entire cast wholly dictated the lengths at which he could justifiably extend himself and make a leveling impact. He brought tension to an unnamed craps player in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Hard Eight – the bit-est of parts that began a fruitful career between a brave Hoffman and the equally as brave Anderson. He underplays the suspicious Freddie Miles in The Talented Mr. Ripley, slinks around as a hack reporter in Red Dragon, politely and quirkily juxtaposes ‘The Dude’s’ laid back persona as Brandt in The Big Lebowski, and quietly hovers over Brad Pitt as stubborn Oakland Athletics coach, Art Howe, in Moneyball. Even as Truman Capote, a marvelous performance as timeless and transformative as any, Hoffman remains terrifically understated, using calculated mannerisms and vocal alterations to reinvent the famed true crime author and convey his corruptive dilemma of caring for a murder suspect while relishing in the gold mine that would end up being In Cold Blood. But in precise moments he could devour the screen, like in George Clooney’s The Ides of March when he chews out a dishonorable Ryan Gosling, or in J.J. Abrams Mission: Impossible III when he goes toe-to-toe with Tom Cruise and engages in a fierce battle of wits, or in The Master as he monstrously seduces Joaquin Phoenix into a world and order he is continually making up. Hoffman’s fearless acting abilities allowed him the freedom of choice; never was there a role the man could not play, nor was there a performance in which he disappointed. He was consistent, reliable, simultaneously ordinary and incomparable. He was a naturally gifted performer; instead of standing out above his contemporaries, he elevated each and every one of them.
As we look to the future, it’s pretty hard to come to terms with the fact we only have a few Philip Seymour Hoffman performances left. His work on the two final Hunger Games films will remain intact and he still has two movies – A Most Wanted Man and God’s Pocket – set to be released this year. As for his upcoming Showtime series, Happyish, and the Prohibition Era drama starring Jake Gylenhaal and Amy Adams that he was set to direct, they’ll always be painful question marks in what would’ve continued to be a long and prosperous career. Many people on social media have been sharing their favorite lines of Hoffman’s many characters, but I’d like to end with a quote from Hoffman himself. The other night, I came across his Oscar speech for Best Actor in Capote, and while Oscar speeches have the opportunity to say and thank a thousand different things and people, Hoffman ended with the following, proof he was just as much a humble, world class guy as he was a masterful talent:
“[My Mom] is here tonight… She took me to my first play and she stayed up with me to watch the NCAA Final Four, and her passions became my passions, so be proud mom because I’m proud of you, and we’re here tonight and it’s so good. Thank you!”
Now that’s an undisputed, soulful legend. You will be greatly missed and never forgotten.
Rest In Peace, Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Article by Zack Sharf/Mike Murphy