Celebrity deaths rarely make an impact on me. It’s not that I’m heartless or unsympathetic to the family of the departed, but the passing of someone I never met is more often a curiosity or bit of information than a moment of reflection and mourning. There are exceptions, of course. I felt a profound sense of loss when Roger Ebert passed away last spring, and it seemed as though the whole world was filled was sad reminders of that fact for days and days. Similarly, I will spend this week being quietly reminded that Phillip Seymour Hoffman died of an apparent drug overdose on Sunday morning in New York City.
The news itself staggered me this afternoon. I was helping my wife make lunch when Travis texted me the news, and I ran to the computer to confirm. It seemed impossible that a man who was still so young, only 46 at his passing, with decades of more great performances waiting, should be gone so suddenly. The sad details of his struggles with drug addiction and the young family left behind will make for a lot of tabloid fodder. Personally, I didn’t know the man and can only be sympathetic about such things from a distance. What I wanted to write about for The Recorder is what I know Phillip Seymour Hoffman as: an actor of the highest order who improved every project he was in through his sheer talent.
The performance that seems to have gotten the most attention as people registered their shock and sadness online today is Hoffman’s work as Lester Bangs in Almost Famous. Playing the real-life rock critic (who also died of a drug overdose in a mercilessly sad parallel), Hoffman acts as an unconventional mentor to the aspiring journalist played by Patrick Fugit. He’s a schlubby, motor-mouthed weirdo who pops into Fugit’s life to push him towards taking chances and learning from the fallout. The performance, in its mix of slumming physicality and volcanic mental and emotional acuity embodies a particular personality type is rarely found on film. He was endlessly enthused about the great stuff and dismissive of the crap that isn’t great and to hell with all who disagreed. In a now-immortal scene near the film’s end he tells his young charge what a great head start he has in figuring out life at 15 by saying “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone else when we’re uncool.” Countless people who, like me, saw that movie in their teenage years could only have felt an immediately gratifying flood of validation for their feelings and admiration for the man who articulated why they mattered.
His career was marked by lots of critical acclaim and award attention, but the performance that actually brought him an Oscar was in the criminally under-seen 2005 biopic Capote. Again playing a real-life figure, this time the iconic mid-century American writer Truman Capote, Hoffman flourished in a role that called for both mimicry of a celebrity and the ability to bring real pathos and sympathy out of such a cheap trick. Helped by the immaculate writing and directing of his longtime friends Dan Futterman and Bennet Miller, he played Capote with all the right callow flashiness and self-absorption without ever losing the threads of pain, loss, and ostracization that informed the man’s writing so much. By the time the film reaches it’s climax in a jail cell interview, Hoffman has brought the audience so thoroughly into Capote’s deeply narcissistic psyche and worldview that it comes as a shock when his prize subject, a confessed murderer, correctly points out that Capote has used and discarded him for personal gain just as the killer used and discarded the lives of a farming family.
It’s an incredible performance and I’m still amazed it actually won the Best Actor award at that year’s Oscars. Hoffman was always an unconventional actor, too heavy and unkempt to attract the adoration that usually goes with leading man roles. If he was ever to win an Oscar it felt like it had to be for a supporting role, a second-rate prize for a first-rate character actor. That he won as a lead says something enormous about his abilities and their ability to transcend Hollywood expectations. That Oscar helped catapult Hoffman towards being something like a bankable star. He was a trusted figure for both filmmakers and audiences; someone who an indie film could be built around but who was equally at ease slipping into a supporting or villainous role in a major Hollywood production. Not many actors can be both a chilling spy movie bad guy and a grumbling baseball manager, but both roles fit Hoffman like a glove because his characters always seemed so effortlessly human.
Personally speaking, what I might remember most from Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s too-brief career is his frequent collaborations with Paul Thomas Anderson. Hoffman appeared in five of Anderson’s six films (skipping only There Will Be Blood) and always seemed a perfect fit for Anderson’s worlds full of constant volatility and rare grace. The contrasts between characters are often sharp, but Anderson always found a role for Hoffman to add layer upon layer to. Look at his love (and lust)-struck boom-mic operator in Boogie Nights, a character who would be a joke in most films becomes a figure of almost impossibly quiet tragedy and fortitude. His seething rage and menace as a mattress salesman/phone sex-line proprietor in Punch-Drunk Love lends that film a dark mirror image of the rippling waves of rage and fear that Adam Sandler’s lead embodies.
His finest work with Anderson will sadly be their last collaboration. In The Master, which was my favorite movie of 2012, Hoffman played Lancaster Dodd, the enigmatic and magnetic leader of a Scientology-like cult. While the film’s focus is on Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell, a drunk wanderer who stumbles into the orbit of Dodd, Hoffman is all but a co-lead. Despite vast contrasts in looks, manner, education, and stability the two share an immense connection. Dodd sees Quell as something of a protozoan form of himself, directionless and lost but subject to the same desires and terrors that Dodd thinks he can finally resolve. At times in the sprawling plot it appears that Dodd is utterly certain of his righteousness, while at others he seems to sink under the knowledge that he is a charlatan who is only fooling himself. Hoffman plays every moment to perfection, making Dodd feel like the unholy melding of a teddy bear and a televangelist. It’s a towering performance that is matched stride for stride by Phoenix, and their shared screentime is cinema at its most vexing, intriguing, and electrifying.
As I thought about Hoffman’s death on and off throughout the day I kept circling back to his last scene with Phoenix in The Master. Dodd and Freddie have been alienated for some time and Dodd’s wife has essentially forbade Freddie from further association with their faith. But Dodd calls him in one last time, to see the pupil he loved and believed in even as he despised so much of the younger man’s wild and dangerous behavior. Hoffman and Phoenix underplay the scene, holding inside all the endless oceans of feeling that had characterized their relationship. He ends the scene with a strangely haunting and moving rendition of “(I’d Like to Get You On) A Slow Boat to China.” But before that Dodd has a line that has haunted me all day long. “If you figure a way to live without serving a master, any master, then let the rest of us know, will you? For you’d be the first person in the history of the world.”
In the end Phillip Seymour Hoffman could not live without a master. To quote a line of Amy Adams’ from that same scene he “could not take this world straight.” A recurring addiction to heroin took Hoffman’s life, rendering him subject to that eternal master we all share. He’s gone now; claimed by death. If we see him from here on it will be as a ghost up on the silver screen. It’s a slim sort of immortality, and cheap comfort to his grieving family, but I never really knew him any other way. I’ll miss what more there might have been, but what he contributed to our screen culture will live on.