What will we do without Philip Seymour Hoffman, the character actor who became a star, putting himself at the forefront of the very best actors we have? It seems as though a hole just got punched, not just in the movies but in the culture as a whole. Weirder still: I never met the man, so why do I feel as if I’ve just lost a dear friend?
Hoffman’s body was discovered on Sunday in his apartment in Manhattan’s West Village; drugs, with which the actor struggled on and off through much of his life, may have played a part. If that’s true, he’s only the latest in a long line of artists and celebrities doomed by the appetites that may have fueled them, and good luck finding nobility in that.
Yet his death at age 46 is a different sort of robbery than James Gandolfini’s passing last June. Public sorrow in that case was driven, in part, by the unfairness of it all — that Gandolfini was on the verge of giving us so much more than Tony Soprano, and we would never get to see it.
With Hoffman, there is a more bitter sense of cultural loss because the actor had made good on his early promise. He survived winning an Oscar with career and sanity apparently intact. Even more impressively, he seemed able to balance theater and movies, directing and acting, blockbusters and gnarly little indies, character parts and leading roles with a freedom of movement vouchsafed to very, very few performers in our modern circus.
All audiences knew him — baseball fanatics from “Moneyball,” rock ’n’ rollers from “Almost Famous” (who else possessed the dyspepsia to play legendary rock critic Lester Bangs?), younger viewers from his role as Plutarch Heavensbee in the recent “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.” With two more installments in that franchise, by the way, Plutarch and thus Hoffman will be with us through the end of 2015, like twinned, gently sardonic ghosts in the machine.
I’m trying to remember when I first noticed him. Not just saw him, but noticed him. I’d like to think it was as Chris O’Donnell’s arrogant prep school pal in 1992’s “Scent of a Woman” — a WASP insider so different from the outsider parts Hoffman would come to feast on. But, like you, I probably first really became aware of the actor five years later, with “Boogie Nights.”
His Scotty J in that film is a sad little porn-industry gofer, crushing on Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler, enraptured by orgies unfolding on both sides of the camera, and deluded by the hope that they might include a schlubby closet case like him. As well as anyone or anything in that modern American classic, Scotty illustrates the unbridgeable gulf between the fantasies we sell ourselves and the realities we live with.
I’ll go further. I submit to you that the greatness of Philip Seymour Hoffman, in both individual roles and over the course of his career, is that he never stopped measuring the distance between what we want and what we get, what we hope for and what we’re stuck with — the perfect poetry of man at his most ideal and the crumminess of day-to-day life. It’s always there — always — in the way his characters look at the world through eyes that are damaged, intelligent slits, in an air of slouchy regret that somehow balances tragedy and farce, in the drama of a brilliant mind betrayed by a human body. In a Hoffman performance, the battle is between reason and exhaustion, the necessity of art and the inevitability of entropy, and the battle never ends.
Thus his Truman Capote in “Capote,” the 2005 performance that won him a best actor Oscar but that sticks in your mind for its ruthlessness — the sense that all those words and all that genius will never save Capote from himself. Thus the pathetic obscene phone caller of “Happiness” (1998), the larcenous family businessman of “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” (2007), the high school teacher dancing with temptation in “25th Hour” (2002), the cult leader of “The Master” (2012), the latter so disenchanted with the world that he creates a vast insane theology in response.
Hoffman found success on the stage, both in acting (three Tony nominations) and directing, but his sole film directing credit was “Jack Goes Boating” (2010), adapted from a play in which he starred. It is not a great movie, but it is a decent one in every sense, with a faith in its characters and their small-scale dreams. I ended my review in this paper with the words “More, please,” and the fact that there will be no more only adds to my foul mood. Philip Seymour Hoffman is dead, and the only proper response is unprintable.
There are a few films in the can, though, yet to be released. Two of them were played at Sundance last month, each honoring what Hoffman was able to do without furthering it much. “God’s Pocket,” directed by “Mad Men” star John Slattery, is a slice of urban lowlife in which the star is glumly amusing as a small-time hood having a very bad week. “A Most Wanted Man” is an espionage drama, based on a John le Carre novel and therefore smarter than most in its genre; it gives Hoffman a rare lead role as a German spymaster, and, again, the distance between the character’s intelligence and his weariness powers the performance.
That said, if you want to properly mourn Hoffman’s passing, you should queue up “Synecdoche, New York,” Charlie Kaufman’s epic 2008 drama about the ways we dramatize ourselves. Hoffman plays Caden Cotard, a theater director staging a mammoth, never-ending re-creation of his own life (and all the women in it) inside a warehouse. Over the years, then decades, of the production, the play becomes the life, or life becomes the play, or something in the middle — it is probably the closest the movies have come to that M.C. Escher print of two hands drawing each other. What makes “Synecdoche, New York” work as more than a gimmick, though, is Hoffman at its center, helplessly bending reality into shape with all the heart and blind art he can muster.
He never did play a traditional leading-man role, and while he would certainly have nailed it, I’m not sure any of us wanted to see him do it. Hoffman’s doubt was so much more interesting; that and the sideways wheedle of a voice that knew more than it was willing to admit.
He kept our secret — that everything goes to hell eventually, sometimes even beautifully — even as he acted it out, and for that we gave him our trust and the kind of love most movie stars only dream of.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.