Philip Seymour Hoffman was a bravura actor who made his pain a timeless expression of us all
I’ll never forget the moment I first sat up and took notice of Philip Seymour Hoffman — the moment that I knew I loved him as an actor and knew, as well, that he was a different kind of great actor from anyone I’d ever seen. It was the moment in Boogie Nights (1997) when Hoffman’s Scotty J., the boom-mike operator who has spent most of the film hanging around the sidelines of the porn set, a sweetly insecure dude in long red hair, his gut poking out of his ’70s tank tops, confesses to Dirk Diggler that he’s got a crush on him. This comes as news to Dirk — and news to the audience as well, since we didn’t know that Scotty was gay, because it’s clearly something that he was hiding from the world. Drunk, and a little less shy because of it, Scotty shows Dirk his new sports car, which he thinks will impress him (it doesn’t), and he then tries to lay a smooch on him, which Dirk, in this paleo-days-of-gay-liberation era, thinks is beyond weird. But that’s the rejection that Scotty’s been living in terror of, and now that it’s happened, he breaks down.
Crushed, defeated, humiliated, he gets behind the wheel of his car and starts saying, “I’m a f—-in’ idiot,” over and over and over again, barking out the words through angry tears, until his sadness and self-hatred blend, relentlessly, into a mantra of misery. “I’m a f—-in’ idiot!” I bet there isn’t a person who saw Boogie Nights who watched Scotty tear into himself in that scene and didn’t flash back to his or her own “I’m a f—-in’ idiot!” moment. We’ve all had them. The catharsis of Hoffman’s performance is that he held up the mirror to something that actors, even great ones, almost never have the daring to reveal: the scrappy, private pain of a completely ordinary person. And that was the beauty of it, the way that Hoffman exposed that pain. The audacity of the scene worked almost like therapy: It let you look at yourself at your most vulnerable, and feel just a little bit redeemed.
The death of a popular and beloved artist and celebrity can affect us in many different ways. If the person is young (like Paul Walker or River Phoenix), his loss will by shocking and tragic. But if an actor dies of unnatural causes when he is still relatively young, as the 46-year-old Philip Seymour Hoffman did, and he has given the kind of performances, in movie after movie, that tap the outer reaches of an audience’s empathy, so that he has done more than entertain us — he has touched our souls — then when we hear about his death, the shock may be hard to get over, because it’s almost literally hard to imagine the universe without that person’s presence. That’s the way I feel about Philip Seymour Hoffman. He was a force of an actor, an artist who poured so much of himself into his performances that when I heard about his death, I felt a little like I had lost a member of my family. He was an actor you ended up caring deeply about because of his casual fearlessness, his gruff twinkle of reality, his utter lack of baloney, and — no small instrument for an actor to possess — the wily fascination of his mind. You always got the feeling that his characters were so interesting because he was interesting, and he saw and understood, as part of his process, their hidden depths.
He didn’t look like other actors. The pale, often scraggly moon face set off by a shock of straw-blond hair that might have been stolen off of Paul Williams. The insinuating cut of his lips. The squinty sly-dog stare. The gym? what’s a gym? physique that he wore almost proudly, like a doughy chassis of normality. And he didn’t sound like other actors. The voice was somewhere between a scratch and a growl, with just a hint of honey. It wasn’t a relaxed voice, though it sometimes spoke with an exaggerated, almost pent-up calm. It was addled and animated, with a melodic intensity, never more so than when he lowered it, making it soft with private anxiety or delight, so that you wanted to lean in close to catch every glimmer of insinuation. He may not have been a physically beautiful actor, but he was something more elusive and commanding. He was handsomely ordinary, almost distinctively undistinctive, which is why, from the start, he was drawn to playing deeply unglamourous and even desperate men. In 1998, the year after Boogie Nights, he sealed his courage as an actor — raised the bar on it, in fact — when he gave a heroically committed performance in Todd Solondz’s Happiness as a pathological wallflower who finds sexual release by making obscene phone calls. It was the kind of character the movies generally treat as a joke, or with undisguised contempt (who would defend such a character?), but Hoffman took this seemingly irredeemable “perv” and found the humanity in him. That humanity is all that he saw…in everyone he played.
For just when it looked like he might be cornering the market on playing timid, badly dressed, mouth-breathing sad sacks, Hoffman began to demonstrate that he was, in fact, every bit as good at — and just as drawn to — playing men of confidence and raw moxie and power. He did the same thing for them that he did for dweebs, nailing them from the inside out. I first noticed what a gift he had for making completely untroubled characters as mesmerizing as those who were defined by their troubles in The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), where he showed up as Freddie Miles, the rich-kid playboy who treats life like a giant champagne bath; Hoffman made you feel the nearly tactile joy of Freddie’s all-American blustery decadence. From that point on, Hoffman was off and running, giving great performances in so many different kinds of roles that whatever tendency you might have had to typecast him in your mind was blown away by the sheer prodigious imagination of his talent. In Almost Famous (2000), he played the rock critic Lester Bangs as an inspiring, fly-in-the-ointment rascal who warns the young hero that the corporations are going to kill rock & roll if they haven’t already, and Hoffman let you taste the heady charge of that cynicism by melding it with his own purist spirit as an actor. (He knew all too well what the corporations were always going to ask artists to do.) In the little-seen gem Owning Mahowny (2003), he’s a fubsy assistant bank manager who is also a hellbent closet blackjack addict, and Hoffman made you feel the furtive sweat beads of nervousness as well as the gambler’s high that was driving him. Even Hoffman’s chumps always hum with a buzzing interior energy. They’re hungry for more than they have, and that, in a way, is the Hoffman mystique, the obsessional fervor he granted to losers and winners alike.
It may seem obvious to say that his crowning achievement was Capote (2005), for which he won a richly deserved Academy Award, but to me it truly was. The amazingness of his impersonation wasn’t just the way that he captured Truman Capote as a walking piece of theater who used his airy mannerisms and Elmer-Fudd-meets-Blanche-DuBois voice to distract you, to fool you. It was the way that, for the first time, Hoffman was playing an immensely powerful man in dweeb’s clothing, and so he was able to assemble the twin dynamics of his acting — the impulse to hide, and the impulse to reveal — into a single extraordinary portrait of the artist as master manipulator. He made you feel like you knew, intimately, every brilliant, haunted thought and feeling of Truman Capote. Conversely, his performance as the enigmatic postwar cult leader in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (2012) has the hypnotic quality of something monstrously opaque in its evil. The mystery of Lancaster Dodd is that he literally is making it all up as he goes along, because his only real interest is in controlling people. Hoffman plays him as the most quietly unassuming of fascists.
I’d be lying if I denied that when I first heard about the circumstances of Hoffman’s death, learning that he was found in his Greenwich Village office apartment with a syringe in his arm (with plastic packets of heroin by his side), a thought that popped into my head was: My God, it sounds like a Philip Seymour Hoffman character. And, in fact, it took me a couple of minutes to recall that he did play a clandestine heroin user, and it’s one of his finest performances, in one of the most gripping films he ever starred in: Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007), the last film Sidney Lumet directed. It’s a thriller, woven into a family psychodrama worthy of Tennessee Williams, only in this case it’s also a screw-tightening Sidney Lumet crime drama about two close but warring brothers, played by Hoffman and Ethan Hawke, who are each so hard up for money that they decide to knock off their parents’ hole-in-the-mall jewelry store. (They figure that the insurance will cover the losses. What they don’t figure on is how many ways a scheme like this one can go wrong.) Hoffman, all testy and defensive smarm, is playing an already lost soul who begins to lose everything else he has, and the character periodically visits a posh heroin den in a midtown Manhattan high-rise. Hoffman, once again, brings a dimension to this sort of action that you’ve rarely if ever seen: He shows you, vividly, the despair of the addict — the despair that gets bathed, thanks to the drug, in temporary ecstasy — and imagining those scenes, I just about teared up thinking of whatever it was that Hoffman himself, at the moment of his overdose, might have been trying to escape from.
His career appeared to be thriving. His performance as Plutarch Heavensbee in last year’s The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and its upcoming sequel, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, only reaffirmed the juicy and effortlessly selective way that he has chosen to work in Hollywood franchise blockbusters, beginning with his tasty turn as the villain in Mission: Impossible III (2006). And he’d continued to work passionately, as both an actor and director, in the theater. I got to see him on stage only once, in the 2003 Broadway revival of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and I can testify that Hoffman’s performance as Jamie, the alcoholic eldest son in a family of rattling closet skeletons, had a frantic, trembling anger that was palpable. Robert Falls, who directed that production, gave quotes today to The Los Angeles Times in which he said that Hoffman was so committed to his characters that he had trouble letting go of them, and I can readily believe that. If that quality of his somehow played a part in his death, that is deeply tragic. But really, who can ever know someone else’s demons? Part of the miracle of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s acting is that it laid bare the things that make people tick, in a way that art can show you and that life seldom does. What I’ll cherish about Hoffman is the way that his stunning commitment to the truth of his characters, the way that he fearlessly infused them with every aspect of his love and pain, until they infused us as well, created a human reality on screen that you couldn’t shake, couldn’t deny, and could never, ever forget.