Philip Seymour Hoffman
Richard Roeper only had to say one thing to get my support. Roeper had replaced the deceased Gene Siskel as Roger Ebert’s partner on TV and I was unimpressed. I viewed Roeper as a cut-rate interloper until he and Ebert reviewed Almost Famous. Ebert and Roeper raved about Philip Seymour Hoffman’s turn as rock critic Lester Bangs. Roeper declared that “there should be a role for Philip Seymour Hoffman in every movie.” “That’s right!” I thought. Roeper gets it; he understands.
I always pulled for Hoffman. I rooted for him the way I would for a favorite sports star. Maybe part of it was that I could identify with him. His pudgy physique and ordinary looks made him relatable in a way unlike many other actors. More importantly, I always felt that Hoffman’s success was due to talent and dedication alone. He never appeared to want to be a celebrity. Hoffman mostly stayed away from talk shows and was out of the tabloids. It seemed he cared only about becoming an extraordinary actor. If he became a movie star along the way, than so it be it, but that was never the goal.
My friends and I first talked about Hoffman after he blew us away in Boogie Nights. He took a role that could have been a pathetic caricature and gave him warmth and depth. As many writers have noted since his death, Hoffman had a gift for finding the humanity even in the most flawed characters. He did so again a year later in Happiness, playing a depressed, obscene phone caller. Hoffman made that man feel authentic and vulnerable.
After that, all of us Hoffman fans treated each other like we were all in a secret club. You like Tom Hanks? I do too, but anyone can appreciate Hanks. You like Philip Seymour Hoffman? Cool, you really know your film. Hoffman was like a fine wine that only the real connoisseurs would value.
While Hoffman had always shown his skills in supporting roles, including The Talented Mr. Ripley and Almost Famous, I always wondered what he could do with a leading role. The answer was nothing and everything. He didn’t treat the leading roles any differently than the smaller ones. He always found the heart of his character and worked from there. There was no typical Philip Seymour Hoffman part as every role was a unique transformation. The clearest example was his Oscar winning performance in Capote, because he reshaped his voice and physicality. Still, that work was no less remarkable than what he did in Owning Mahowny, playing a mild-mannered bank executive struggling with a gambling problem. In that role, as he did so often, Hoffman excelled at showing a man with one face that he showed to the world while hiding other desires underneath. That was a singular talent, with disturbing parallels to his own life.
Even as Hoffman grew in fame and stature, he never left smaller roles and smaller movies. A good part was a good part, regardless of how many lines he had or the size of the budget. In 2011, he took small but critical roles in The Ides of March and Moneyball. In 2012, he starred in the little seen gem A Late Quartet. This past January two of his films debuted at Sundance.
He wanted to work with exceptional talents and they wanted to work with him. His co-stars included Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Julianne Moore, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Edward Norton, Catherine Keener, Christopher Walken, Jeff Bridges, Julia Roberts, Albert Finney, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Al Pacino, Paul Newman, Anthony Hopkins, Harvey Keitel, Chris Cooper, Amy Ryan, Marisa Tomei, John C. Reilly, Don Cheadle, Tom Cruise, Jason Robards, Ralph Fiennes, Alec Baldwin, George Clooney, Laura Linney, Paul Giamatti, Charles Durning, Ryan Gosling, William H. Macy, Ethan Hawke, Jennifer Lawrence and Woody Harrelson. His directors included the Coen brothers, Paul Thomas Anderson, Spike Lee, Todd Solondz, Anthony Minghella, Cameron Crowe, Mike Nichols, David Mamet and the great Sidney Lumet (in Lumet’s last film, the extraordinary Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead). All of this in a film career lasting barely over 20 years.
For Hoffman’s fans and admirers, what hurts the most is that he had so much more yet to give. In 2010, Hoffman made his directorial debut with the underrated Jack Goes Boating. He displayed the same dedication and attention to detail as a director as he had as an actor. Only a short time ago, Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal signed on to what would have been Hoffman’s second directing effort, Ezekiel Moss. Who knows what Hoffman could have done as a filmmaker?
Hoffman was also broadening his appeal. Last year he co-starred in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and is still set to appear in parts three and four of the franchise. Who knows how many people will discover him and go back to some of his earlier films?
So many of Hoffman’s characters wrestled with their personal demons, whether it was an unrequited love, sexual perversity, a gambling problem, crippling guilt, or, most hauntingly, drug addiction. In real life, Hoffman’s demons were too much for him to overcome. I wish I knew how someone who had so much focus and precision in his professional life could be so reckless in his personal life.
Now that the shock has somewhat worn off, I sometimes do not know whether to feel sad or angry. It’s mostly sadness, especially when I think of the three children he left behind. There’s still some anger at the never-ending list of talent drug addiction has claimed, whether it’s Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, John Belushi, River Phoenix, or now Hoffman. But in the end sadness prevails. I’ll miss seeing Hoffman’s name on a cast list and knowing that the film will be better because of him. I’ll miss pulling for him. Most of all I’ll miss wondering, in eager anticipation, what he will do next.
February 19, 2014
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