Much has been written about Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death. I remember reading a scathing article that decried Hoffman for his drug habit, and blamed his death squarely on no one but himself. It almost went as far as to say that anyone who can nurse an addiction so dangerous while being aware of the fact that he had three beautiful children to look after and set an example for, must surely deserve to die.
But this post is not about all of that. It is not about how or why he died. It is simply a lament over the loss of one of the most gifted actors of our generation, for every so often, we forget to separate the art from the artist.
Hoffman tended to really get under the skin of his characters, absorb them as it were. Perhaps they came easy to him; he usually played the freaks, the everyday men and women who surround us, but with their quirks, idiosyncrasies, bizarre fetishes enhanced. As Capote, he played a man at the crossroads between immense achievement and self-respect, a dilemma many of us face without even realizing it. Capote’s eccentricities did well to hide not only his intellect but also his wounds. Sound familiar?
Despite his penchant for supporting roles, he was never a sidelined actor; his performances only served to perfectly complement and further develop the lead(s). In The Master, he played the ideal antithesis to Joaquin Phoenix’s clueless Freddie, a forbidding character with all the answers, and yet Hoffman managed to perfect the barely visible hint of the charisma such a man must have had, a reminder of what could have been. In Doubt, he held his own against Meryl Streep’s performance, winning acclaim for his portrayal of the moral ambiguity that even members of the Catholic church must face.
My first memory of Hoffman is The Talented Mr. Ripley. His was a short role, but to my young and untrained eye, he stood out among Matt Damon’s and Jude Law’s outstanding performances. The ill-concealed contempt he displays for Damon’s Tom Ripley in his very first scene seemed to me, even then, a master class in acting.
Perhaps the movie of his that has most polarized audiences remains to this day Synecdoche, New York. When I saw it, I liked it. When I watched it again, I fell in love with it. Despite its blurring of the boundaries between fiction and reality, Hoffman’s Cotard is immensely relatable. He beautifully portrays the same hang-ups we all periodically succumb to: arrogance and conceit on the one hand and insecurity, fear and self-deprecation on the other.
In his interviews, which were few and far between, he came across as a mixed shamble of many of his characters: bleak and intense, gruff and not given to conversation. Never the conventional leading man (is there such a thing?). Perhaps his characters exhausted him, drained him emotionally. Perhaps that was just him.
Hoffman always had problems with his compulsive drug habit and excessive drinking. He suffered a relapse just last year, followed by a short stint in rehab. Yesterday, a source revealed that his private diary indicated him battling between two women, not to mention his own inner demons. Did these demons help shape his characters? Or was it in fact the other way round? To me, that’s irrelevant. What is relevant is that we have lost a real treasure.
I’m certain this post is incomplete in the minds of many. Different people appreciated Hoffman for different roles; I myself remember marveling at his skill in many films other than the ones mentioned above, not least The Big Lebowski, Almost Famous and Boogie Nights. But I suppose that is the point: through all his characters, we could identify with him. We have lost not some surreal celebrity, but one of our very own.
Perhaps that is best explained in his own immortal words: “I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher. But above all, I am a man. Just like you.”