Whether embodying a near shut-in, choking on loneliness, his body collapsing in on itself, or a master communicator and manipulator, drunk on his own Kool-Aid, given to sudden ecstatic gestures and charismatic dance, Philip Seymour Hoffman conveyed a sense of bearing heavy burden like few others could. He was imminently melancholic, weighty, the most corpulent yet full-bodied of actors. He rarely looked comfortable in his body, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t use it, often with tremendous nuance. He was Sisyphian. Which is to say that, no matter how elephantine the burden he carried, he felt it incumbent upon himself to keep going up that hill. He was never not doing something active and compelling, never resigned to playing mere attitude. I’m struck, now, by how often his characters’ burdens involved ingestible vice: bad food, alcohol, drugs. He played a gas-huffer, a heroin addict, Lester Bangs. He perspired need. He was an all-round gifted, hard-working actor, but at this especially he was extraordinary: desperation. I just wish that the way he died didn’t so closely mirror his work.
top: Boogie Nights
bottom: The Big Lebowski
You couldn’t possibly pay the slightest attention to interesting American movies in the past 15 years and not know him. The high forehead, vulnerable, pale, a seawall against which all manner of earthly pressures crashed. That voice, typically nasal, often sounding like he’d dragged it out of bed, the mattress sweaty and half-stripped, before bashing it on the night table on the way up. Those cupping paws that looked like they had to have the cigarettes pushed into them. The eyes—they seemed to change all the time, hard to soft, pinned to orb-like, sometimes sexy. I first saw Hoffman in Hard Eight (1996), Paul Thomas Anderson’s debut. He played an arrogant mullet trying to bend a craps table to his will through sheer bullying. By Boogie Nights (1997), Anderson’s follow-up, I was really paying attention. He was a chubby, anguished pubescent in a man’s body, under-dressed, not easy to cuddle, though he tried to kiss Dirk Diggler with so much closeted passion. A small but memorable role in The Big Lebowski (1998) found him more uptight, nervous and really funny. It made clear that there was no limiting his range; no matter the lack of movie star handsomeness he would break out from the character actor ghetto. In Happiness (1998), this burden I keep thinking about was already fully formed. He was so pathetic yet so watchable, savouring Todd Solondz’s writing, even when its comic despair felt a little cheap.
from top to bottom: The Savages,
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead,
Synecdoche New York
As Hoffman’s boyishness fell away, which it did rapidly, he became a go-to guy for a certain anxious weariness, and his work increasingly seemed focused on finding truth in the grotesque, as though the only empathy worth earning was the sort that rose from weakness. In Capote (2005) he gave a precision performance that hinges on his insistence on giving equal attention to the titular character’s fascination with others and his ultimate ruthlessness. Capote won Hoffman the Best Actor Oscar, but that performance was easily bested only a couple of years later in, for example, The Savages (2007), as Laura Linney’s brother, or Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007), as Ethan Hawke’s brother. We see him shoot heroin in that movie, and we see him die. He played the much-doubted priest in Doubt (2008), who you keep feeling for even when you’re almost sure he really is a pederast. He was the only one who could have starred in Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche New York (2008), in which he’s attacked by his own sink, dates a woman in a burning house, and watches his adult daughter deteriorate before his eyes. He plays a nobody playwright who gets genius grant and decides to make a play about everything. Rehearsals go on for all his life. His character’s art becomes infinite, boundless, beyond the frame. Life itself. The film is unbearably sad, but I’ll be damned if Hoffman doesn’t make every scene feel relevant, forward-moving. It was his most Sisyphian role.
What I will admire most in this filmography is Hoffman’s mesmerizing, Wellesian convergence of hysteria and colossal confidence in Anderson’s The Master (2012), about a very American longing for self-made religion, and one of the great films of this young century. As L. Ron Hubbard stand-in Lancaster Dodd, Hoffman seemed older than ever, but that fatherliness made him eerily persuasive, repeating questions like a relentlessly applied balm to Joaquin Phoenix’s wounded Freddie, and later, in that strange and haunting final meeting between master and pupil, singing to Freddie about how he wants to get him alone on a slow boat to China. The Master also emphasized how much Hoffman could do with repressed anger, that scene where Dodd is so determined to shame a guy bold enough to confront him publicly by using only wit and a sense of wonder, yet he can’t help but suddenly spit out “Pig fuck!” The rage is always there, but he masks it with playfulness and ambition and that weird bonhomie.
I write all this to remember Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died of a heroin overdose last weekend at the appallingly young age of 46, leaving behind three kids, his partner, Mimi O’Donnell, and countless colleagues and friends. It is just so sad. He was a prolific actor who I’ve had the immense pleasure of spending much time watching, listening to, thinking about, writing about. I interviewed him only once. He could be prickly, and it wasn’t the easiest conversation, but it was rewarding. Our talk ended with the topic of death in Capote, and Hoffman’s last words stick in my mind now. “It’s like Capote has come to bear witness to all these deaths,” he said. “And the truth he discovers is that they don’t pass through him without leaving marks.”