Philip Seymour Hoffman, an actor of moments big and small

04:33, Feb 03 2014
Philip Seymour Hoffman
Actor Philip Seymour Hoffman (2nd right) and producers of Death of a Salesman accept a Tony award for best revival of a play during the American Theatre Wing's 66th annual Tony Awards in New York June 10, 2012.
Philip Seymour Hoffman
Philip Seymour Hoffman takes pictures as he arrives on the red carpet during a screening for the movie The Master at the 69th Venice Film Festival in Venice September 1, 2012.
Philip Seymour Hoffman
Actor Philip Seymour Hoffman wins the Coppa Volpi award for best actor in The Master and receives a Jaeger-LeCoultre watch on stage during the Award Ceremony at the 69th Venice Film Festival at the Palazzo del Cinema on September 8, 2012 in Venice, Italy.
Philip Seymour Hoffman
Philip Seymour Hoffman attends the premiere of the film A Most Wanted Man at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, January 19, 2014.
Philip Seymour Hoffman attends The Master Premiere during The 69th Venice Film Festival at the Palazzo del Cinema on September 1, 2012 in Venice, Italy
Philip Seymour Hoffman looks on as the Oklahoma City Thunder play the New York Knicks during an NBA basketball game at Madison Square Garden on December 25, 2013 in New York City.
Police say actor Philip Seymour Hoffman died of an apparent drug overdose.
Flowers are placed outside the apartment where actor Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead in Manhattan, New York.
Two men embrace near the apartment where movie actor Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead in New York.
A woman - who declined to give her name and said she was friends and working on a project with movie actor Philip Seymour Hoffman - wipes away tears as she stands across the street from the apartment where they found the celebrity dead.
Police stand outside the apartment where actor Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead.
An NYPD Crime Scene investigator comes out from the apartment where actor Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead.
Members of the media stand outside the apartment of movie actor Philip Seymour Hoffman after he was found dead in New York.
Philip Seymour Hoffman
DEAD WITH 46: Oscar winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman

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-schticky 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 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.

-Washington Post