Philip Seymour Hoffman: An Actor First
Much hyperbole is written about actors when they die. There are too many “voices of a generation,” and “set the templates for what leading men should be.” The tributes get even more frenzied when that actor dies young, like Philip Seymour Hoffman at 46, from an apparent drug overdose. In echoes of the aftermath of Heath Ledger’s death, crowds gather outside the Manhattan apartment, the body is still on the bathroom floor, and you hope—impossible now in the clamping jaws of the 24-hour news cycle—that someone of Hoffman’s quality and standing is remembered for his performances than the manner of his death.
The shock is greater, because Hoffman’s performances are still current, still live, there are films of his still to be released: another Hunger Games movie, God’s Pocket, opposite Christina Hendricks, Anton Corbijn’s A Most Wanted Man, which he promoted at last month’s Sundance Film Festival, and a Showtime TV series he was set to star in, Happyish.
Many theatergoers, myself among them, were rocked, mesmerized—still now, two years later—by his forceful, unbearably moving portrayal of Willy Loman in a much-praised Death of a Salesman Broadway production that won him his third Tony nomination. Whatever fulsome cliché of brilliance you want to attach to Hoffman is merited. As Steve Martin said on Twitter, “If you missed him as Willy Loman, you missed a Willy Loman for all time.”
“We are devastated by the loss of our beloved Phil and appreciate the outpouring of love and support we have received from everyone,” Hoffman’s family said in a statement. “Please keep Phil in your thoughts and prayers.”
Hoffman, as Martin alludes to, was that rare thing, today anyway: a major Hollywood name galvanized more by acting, by disappearing into his roles, and honing his craft into a series of memorable performances, than the flashbulbs and designer screechiness of the red carpet. He wasn’t an action hero, he wasn’t a conventional idol like Ledger. He was a reminder of what acting is or should be.
Audiences at both the movies and theater knew that watching him, and appreciated it of him. His characters were shaded with subtlety and skill. They were also characters rooted in the everyday. They were lonely sometimes, put upon, constrained. His ruffled appearance helped casting directors and audiences: Hoffman looked all too real. His pre-eminence is emblemized in the roster of directors he worked with, Paul Thomas Anderson prime among them, and also including Todd Solondz, Spike Lee, Cameron Crowe and Anthony Minghella.
Those who watched Hoffman on screen and stage may inevitably seek to draw a parallel between the fractured, tormented characters he is best-known for and the actor himself, now that he has died in the way he has. The likes of Dr. Drew Pinsky are filling the airwaves with pop-psych soundbites about matters of addiction and recovery we, as yet, know very little. It’s true that Hoffman’s most famous characters were losers, or weirdos, on the margins, on the edge, creepy, sometimes vulnerable, sometimes menacing.
But it would be reductive to make that parallel a blanket one. Not all of Hoffman’s characters shuffled about suspiciously. In Charlie Wilson’s War (2007), he played an aggressive CIA man. In his Oscar-winning performance in Capote (2006), he portrayed the celebrated author with a depth and nuance not associated with Capote’s wholly-campy public persona. In Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (2012), for which he shared the Best Actor prize with co-star Joaquin Phoenix from the Venice Film Festival, and earned his fourth and last Oscar nomination, he was the charismatic leader of a Scientology-like cult.
Other high-profile roles he was nominated for awards included in Doubt (2008), as a priest accused of sexual abuse, a performance in which Hoffman somehow combined a malevolence and vulnerability. So much is signposted in movies today, Hoffman’s great skill was to play characters you would not traditionally feel sympathy for, or conversely that you should, and then introduce ambiguity to that portrayal, subverting your expectations. In Magnolia (1999)—“a smorgasbord of pleasure, that movie”—he played opposite Tom Cruise as a nurse. He was wonderful, with Laura Linney, as a burdened brother and sister looking after an ailing parent in The Savages (2007).
Hoffman was born in Fairport, New York. His parents—mother a judge, father a former Xerox executive—divorced when he was nine when his father walked out on the family. He was extremely close to his mother, who introduced him to theater and sports. A jock, a neck injury cut short a possible career in wrestling. "I'd been going to the theatre since I was 10 or 12,” he told The Independent in 2012. “I got into plays in high school then I ended up going to college for it. So it was around then that I thought it was something I wanted to do." His "lightning bolt" moment came when he saw Arthur Miller's All My Sons for the first time.
Hoffman studied drama at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, and became involved with the New York-based LAByrinth Theater Company, and was its co-artistic director. Through his career Hoffman balanced theater and movie commitments. His movie career began in movies like Scent of a Woman (1992). His role in Hard Eight (1996) as a craps player, first showed his chops. Two years later, The Big Lebowski and Happiness solidified Hoffman’s reputation as one of independent cinema’s leading men. He stood out, indeed took whole scenes for himself, in subsequent films as varied as Almost Famous (2000) as Lester Bangs, and Synecdoche, New York (2008). In 2010, Hoffman made his feature film directorial debut with Jack Goes Boating.
In theater, Hoffman made his stage debut in 1996, in the Public Theater’s The Skriker. Before that glorious Death of a Salesman performance, there were acclaimed roles—and Tony nominations—for his role in revivals Sam Shepard’s True West (2000) and Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night (2003). In 2009, he played Iago, opposite John Ortiz as Othello, at the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts.
But it was his Willy Loman that theater audiences of recent years will remember. In The Daily Beast, Rebecca Miller, Arthur Miller’s daughter, wrote that Hoffman was “almost unbearably true as Willy; he’s utterly naked but constantly manning the emotional synapses routed through Willy’s mind. He leads the cast deep into a domain of totally unmannered and profound acting that you really don’t see in theater very often because it’s almost impossible to sustain. And yet Phil and the other cast members do to the extent that you almost worry for their health. You can see how one might have a nervous breakdown at a certain point.”
Hoffman seems to have approached fame as equably as one who clearly isn’t at home with flashbulbs and microphones can. He told Esquire last year, of becoming better-known and losing his relative anonymity: “I feel it cracking lately, the older I'm getting. I think I'm less anonymous than I was. And I think nowadays it's so easy for people to watch things. In the past five years, our images—yours, everyone's—are everywhere. No one's watching more movies. It's just that the images are being seen more. It's going to be more difficult for the young actors coming up today to keep a low profile. No one can."
He was honest about struggling with drug addiction. Last May, he told TMZ he had checked himself into rehab after first becoming addicted to prescription pills in 2012, before becoming addicted to snorting heroin last year. He said that the heroin “had only lasted a week or so”—this after being free of addiction for 23 years, he had said—and that he had checked himself into an East Coast detox facility for ten days, encouraged by “a great group of friends and family.”
Hoffman praised the virtues of therapy. He told The Independent: "I think therapy is a helpful thing. I think everyone knows it. You do it for your life, you do it for yourself, because you want to explore some things, and get at the bottom of some things. It's about your life, the quality of your life. [It brings out] a lot of humility, I think."
The tragedy of the actor’s death is further underscored by his being a parent with three young children. When Esquire last year repeated a quote of his back at him—"It isn't easy to love something as much as you love a child”—Hoffman replied, “The thing I realized when I became a father is why parents stay and why they take off. The love you feel and the responsibilities you feel, I can see why some people go. They think, I'm never going to make this. Because it puts all of the heartbreaks you've had in your life in perspective. You're like, Oh, I thought that was a broken heart. That's been my experience. Now I'm sure there are some people whose relationships with kids are different. My kids are just, uh, they're good. They're just good kids, man.”
When could the children see Hoffman’s movies, Esquire wondered. "I don't think I've made anything my kids can watch until they're like 40...It's funny, because I did a voice in an animated movie called Mary and Max...And a guy like kills himself in it...The one animated movie I make is for adults."
As retiring and folded into himself as he could seem—interviewers who met him mention a genially scruffy man—Hoffman observed the public attention he received with a healthy wryness. "All of a sudden somebody stares at you in a restaurant and you think they don't like you or they want to fight you or you know them and you forgot their name,” he once said. “Then you realize they saw your movie and they know you. And that's shocking."