Philip Seymour Hoffman wasn’t a movie star in the conventional sense of the term. He wasn’t glamorous or given to the kind of serial-dating, motorcycle-riding, scene-making “lifestyle” that encourages fans to think they know all about you. Rather than a manufactured persona, filmgoers who mourn the 46-year-old actor’s death Sunday are remembering moments — those ineluctable instances in which Hoffman fused “being” and “seeming,” to create textbook examples of acting at its very best.
For most people, those moments occurred in movies by Paul Thomas Anderson, the filmmaker who brought Hoffman to national prominence in his 1997 disco-porno masterpiece, “Boogie Nights,” but who had cast the actor earlier in Anderson’s feature debut, “Hard Eight.” In 2006, Hoffman won a completely deserved Oscar for his lead performance in “Capote,” an alert, gratifyingly un-shticky reanimation of the author of “In Cold Blood.”
Great Hoffman moments, all. But for so many bravura star turns there are countless, equally electrifying, examples in smaller movies, from his beleaguered son of an abusive father in “The Savages” to his obsessive theater director in Charlie Kaufman’s gnarly art-imitates-life-imitates-art head-trip, “Synecdoche, New York.”
That Hoffman died amid talk of a drug overdose — law enforcement sources said that a syringe was found in his arm and that there were apparent signs of heroin use in the New York apartment where he died — will no doubt invite the inevitable talk of an artist and his demons. But filmgoers are reminded first of that artistry.
With his adamantly untoned physique, strawberry-blond hair and pallid complexion, Hoffman was no one’s idea of a matinee idol. He was, instead, a character actor, that yeoman laborer of filmdom who, without a pre-packaged image to protect, can be relied on to sacrifice vanity and shun mass adoration in the service of total immersion into a role. In Hoffman’s case, that meant paunchy, rheumy-eyed regular guys and vulnerable losers whose desperate search for connection so often mirrored his audience’s own shabby, shameful, unphotogenic lives.
The last few years of the actor’s career neatly summed up all that he was capable of: In the 2010 film “Jack Goes Boating,” which marked Hoffman’s directorial debut, he personified a sad-sack, anonymous striver not as a caricature but as a man of quiet courage and tenderness. The next year, he proved just as adroit playing a tough, politics-ain’t-beanbag political adviser in George Clooney’s Washington thriller, “The Ides of March” — which was released within weeks of “Moneyball,” in which Hoffman not only brought rumpled deadpan humor to Oakland A’s manager Art Howe but also helped make Brad Pitt more credible in a similar role.
And 2012 saw similar, seemingly effortless spins-on-a-dime: No sooner had Hoffman delivered a galvanizing, blow-the-doors-off turn as self-deluded cult leader Lancaster Dodd in Anderson’s “The Master” than he appeared, altogether credibly, as a violinist in the soft-spoken chamber-music melodrama “A Late Quartet” (appropriately enough, he was playing second fiddle). So went the pattern of Hoffman’s singular career, all the more exceptional for being so un-showy. Rarely has an actor so consistently elevated the material he worked with, regardless of genre, budget, aesthetic merit or box-office throw-weight.
There will be talk that he is the latest in a depressingly long line of actors who have succumbed to substance abuse. The same rhetoric swirled around Heath Ledger when he died in 2008, and Cory Monteith upon his death last July. The same myth has attached to such writers as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Eugene O’Neill, whose battles with alcoholism are examined by Olivia Laing in her book “The Trip to Echo Spring.”
That people blessed with such prodigious gifts can also be so tortured, we assume, has something to do with the price of genius. There must be a mystical karmic balance in which the sensitivity it takes to be a professional empath — someone willing to take the psychic, emotional and even physical risks necessary to shape-shift into another individual, over and over again — leads them to seek numbness, whether to quiet the voices in their heads, heal their primal wounds or help the sensory and creative juices to flow with more Rabelaisian ferocity. They’re simply too sensitive, too deep-feeling, for this cold, hard world. As Laing puts it, “Writers, even the most socially gifted and established, must be outsiders of some sort, if only because their job is that of scrutiniser and witness.”
It’s a romantic thought, and one that allows admirers of great artists to speak of their loss with compassion, as well as respect for their profound talents. But rhetoric of artistic demons obscures what is, in reality, simply a crippling, fatal disease — of which Hoffman is the latest famous casualty and which affects millions of people far outside the creative confines of Manhattan and Hollywood.
Whatever language we use, though, doesn’t obscure the fact that a superbly talented actor — one capable of bringing so many truths to messy, complicated, ultimately sympathetic life — has been silenced forever. To paraphrase an exchange between Billy Wilder and William Wyler at Ernst Lubitsch’s funeral:
We’ve not only lost Philip Seymour Hoffman, we’ve lost all those Hoffman moments that might have been.