Like everyone I know, I was truly blown aback by the sudden and tragic death of Philip Seymour Hoffman.
In an effort (which I can’t decide is professional or the exact opposite) to have a few extra hours to peruse the bevy of articles dedicated to the actor, his life’s work and his death, I asked my generous editor for some extra time against my deadline to process the subject.
As you might have seen, these articles ranged from simple obituaries to large, swooping pieces about Hoffman’s genius acting, his best film roles, and even a scientific article featuring the actor that details why heroin addiction is such a dangerous vice.
As I sit here typing, in between reading successive articles about or interviews with the man, I have no clue how to express any decent and lasting comment on his legacy or what his passing means to the world of American cinema.
Hoffman was universally beloved and respected, but the characters he played often weren’t anywhere close to likeable. In fact, if you view his filmography, the opposite is almost universally true.
To rattle off just a few of his more celebrated performances that reinforce that concept, he’s been a cult leader in “The Master,” a closeted production assistant working on pornographic movies in “Boogie Nights,” a priest accused of sexual deviancy in “Doubt,” and one of history’s most polarizing real-life characters and his opus, Truman Capote, for which he received an Oscar.
Importantly, I think that the notion that an actor can spend his career playing caustic, troubled and generally morally bankrupt characters and still be incredibly well respected is Philip Seymour Hoffman’s true genius.
Not only did Hoffman play the roles of an insanely talented character actor, he could also play the incredibly hilarious foils that were necessary in even the most simplistic films. I challenge you to find a funnier bit part presence in “Along Came Polly” or “The Big Lebowski,” or even in “Boogie Nights” than Hoffman provided.
As writer Tom Junod expressed quite brilliantly, “I’d always confused Hoffman’s mastery with detachment,” meaning that you would never expect a person who could express trouble and difficulty with such perfection to actually be troubled.
When we think of actors, we think of people who pretend. In our minds, they don’t live the actions they portray on screen, nor do they go through the troubles that their characters do.
Such is where we end up making the wrong conclusions about the people we admire so often, like we have with Hoffman’s death. There’s no way that he could have been so powerful, so vulnerable, or so deftly amazing on screen, unless it was himself and his own insecurities or anger shining through.
Although I am happy to see this genius unfold on a screen, I can never be happy with the way it unraveled in real life. May you rest in peace, Mr. Hoffman.