Monday, February 3, 2014

Death of Philip Seymour Hoffman (1967 - 2014)

That was devastating news to hear yesterday that Philip Seymour Hoffman died of a drug overdose. I was at work when I heard the news and, for a few minutes, fell into a sad slump. I remembered suddenly that I had read about his recent stint in rehab. And I remembered thinking he seemed such an unlikely candidate for that kind of drug addiction. If someone had said he was an alcoholic, I would hardly have blinked. Lots of people drink and many of them have a problem with it. But maybe we tend to think of heroin addiction as relegated to a certain corner of society, to certain members within it. In our minds, heroin is for rock stars or street junkies, but not for world class actors who earn critical praise, win awards, and seem to be otherwise normal. I think what this demonstrates is that you never know who may be hiding a secret drug addiction and those addictions can affect anyone.

Then I started thinking about the sadness associated with the death of a star. I didn't know Hoffman personally, so why the sadness? When I think back on other celebrity deaths, I begin cataloging the feelings I had at the time. Maximilian Schell died the day before. I felt nothing. When Heath Ledger died, I was really affected like I was when River Phoenix died. But Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor, Peter O'Toole, and countless others? When a great talent is taken from us before he has completed his career, we feel empty. We mourn for the loss of what might have been to come. The mourning for the loss of a friend or family member is similar, isn't it? We don't feel sadness because of the memories we already have. It's because of the awareness that no new memories will be created. Newman had a tremendous acting career that spanned six decades. He did it all. Hoffman was just at the beginning of his third decade of film acting. He won his Oscar, yes, but think of all the wonderful roles we will never see him in. We won't ever see him age on screen and take on the roles of older men the way we now get to see Robert De Niro tackle.

Philip Seymour Hoffman was one of the great actors of his generation. He chose projects well and was never afraid to challenge himself for a role. You just have to look over his varied list of film roles to see how many different kinds of movies he made. He played ugly, repellent, villainous, drug-addicted, sex-addicted, gay, cross-dressing, pompous, meek, etc. And he threw himself into every one of them. If he had a supporting role in a movie - and a good number of his parts were supporting - he elevated it by his presence. He was nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar three times - for Doubt, The Master, and Charlie Wilson's War. But his win came for a rare lead role as Truman Capote in Capote. His physical and vocal transformation for that part was astounding. He was hardly himself. But transformation alone is not acting and he made the character his own.

Although Hoffman had small roles in films like Leap of Faith and Scent of a Woman through the early 90s, I first took notice of him in Boogie Nights, in which he played a gay technical assistant on pornographic films who developed an attraction to Mark Wahlberg's character. The entire ensemble in that film was astounding, but something about Hoffman stuck out for me. His voice was unusual and his mannerisms were...not quite pronounced, but unique. There was the way he would subtly put his hand on his hip, or the habit of chewing his pen while it was still attached to his clipboard.

That's the role that really launched his career and then he worked with the Coen brothers on The Big Lebowski where he played the title character's assistant Brandt. That same year came Todd Solondz's Happiness where he wasn't afraid to play a phone sex addict who calls women and says disgusting things to them while masturbating. In 1999 he stretched himself with three disparate roles: one in Joel Schumacher's Flawless as a singing cross-dresser who helps Robert De Niro's stroke victim learn to speak better; an empathetic nurse to the dying Jason Robards in Paul Thomas Anderson's opus Magnolia; and possibly my favorite role of his - that of Freddie Miles, the rich upper-crust friend of Dickie Greenleaf in The Talented Mr. Ripley.

From that point I was hooked on Hoffman. The following year he got a starring role - though really part of an ensemble - in David Mamet's satirical State and Main as the put-upon screenwriter of a Hollywood film shooting in small-town Vermont. He also played Lester Bangs in a minor role in Cameron Crowe's semi-autobiographical Almost Famous. I've always been annoyed at myself for not going to see him alongside John C. Reilly on Broadway in Sam Shepard's True West. The two wonderful actors would trade roles back and forth with the audience never knowing who was going to play which brother on a given day.

I wasn't crazy about Love Liza, but his performance was mesmerizing as usual, and likely drew heavily on personal experience, playing a man addicted to huffing gasoline throughout depression over the suicide of his wife. That same year he again worked with Paul Thomas Anderson on Punch Drunk Love and one of my absolute favorite movies, Spike Lee's 25th Hour where he played a close childhood friend of Edward Norton's.

In Along Came Polly, an unambitious romantic comedy starring Ben Stiller and Jennifer Aniston, he even managed to make the whole film more tolerable by playing Stiller's good friend, the supporting role of a child star desperate to regain his fame as an adult. It's a hilarious performance and worth watching just for Hoffman's antics. Later came great performances alongside Laura Linney in The Savages and Ethan Hawke in Sidney Lumet's final film, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. He could do blockbusters too, turning up as the villain in Mission: Impossible III and in the latest Hunger Games film.

I can hardly think of a performance he gave that's not good, even in not so great movies. I will always be so grateful that I took the opportunity to see him on Broadway in one of American theater's greatest roles - Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman. Though he would generally have been considered too young at the time for that part, it allowed him to use his body to suggest great physical age and weariness. You could feel the weight of life on that man's shoulders. It was as if he was solely carrying the burden of the American dream.

So here's to Philip Seymour Hoffman - a phenomenal actor whose career and life were cut short by addiction. Here's to the great movies he made that we can continue to treasure.

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