They say the graveyards are full of indispensable men, and yet it’s hard not to see the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman as a genuine disaster for motion pictures and for the art of screen acting. To look back on what this consummate American actor accomplished just in the last 15 years is to imagine what he might have done over the next 25 or 30. Hoffman, who was found dead in his New York apartment Sunday, was always surprising us.
An unprepossessing boy-man caught between types, he started out not looking like anybody or like anything in particular. He turned that into an advantage by showing he could play everything. His features were raw, his body almost uncouth, and yet he was capable of remarkable delicacy. A real artist, his center was impossible to locate because it was always different, and changing. He could be light or heavy, warm or cold.
What remained consistent was his power of thought, which he brought to bear on all his great work, including, notably, the title role in “Capote,” one of the most astonishing and sublime chameleon performances in American cinema.
There are rare actors such as this – people whom audiences want to look at, people audiences can’t help wanting to look at, even if they don’t quite know why. In the case of Hoffman, his opacity was an odd gift – a quality present even in his throwaway performances, such as in “Hunger Games: Catching Fire.”
With Hoffman, we never really knew what he was thinking – but we always understood that he was thinking, and that it was something interesting and mesmerizing and slightly out of reach.
He could portray enormous tenderness, and yet he most often played people who were either alienated or had re-created themselves out of a profound sense of alienation.
Indeed, if you’re looking for a common thread in the work of this versatile and multifaceted actor, that might be it. From the shy teacher in “25th Hour” to the self-styled religious leader in “The Master” to the second violinist in “The Last Quartet,” he played lonely men who had made some uneasy accommodation with the surrounding world.
He understood flaws. He most certainly understood darkness, particularly the kind of darkness that could restructure itself as creativity. Think of him as the political fixer in “The Ides of March” or as the volatile government agent in “Charlie Wilson’s War.” One must assume this darkness was also within Hoffman himself and this disturbance was part of his gift.
For sure, he often exuded a lack of ease in his own skin, a submerged self-hatred. Was this real? One sensed it was, though perhaps it was just the movies. In any case, the quality of his intelligence was major, and unmistakable.
But all this summing up is too easy – and inadequate. We can go all day saying true and even clever things about Philip Seymour Hoffman, but none of what we say will capture one minute of what he brought to the screen. There are no reasons for an artist of this magnitude, only imperfect and incomplete observations surrounding him, interesting points we might say to each other.
But in the end, only Hoffman can speak for Hoffman, and he will continue to speak, in the indelible moments he brought to his best movies.
These are too many to name, but just a few, in random order: his embarrassed interaction with the teenage Anna Paquin in the bar scene in “25th Hour”; the interrogation interview with Joaquin Phoenix in “The Master”; the scene in “A Late Quartet” in which he becomes absolutely terrified when his wife catches him with another woman; his funny telephone scenes as Lester Bangs in “Almost Famous”: his tantrum in “Charlie Wilson’s War”; his wounded betrayal in “The Ides of March”; and his mysterious, impenetrable sense of injury in “Doubt.”
There are more – many more. I’m loath to stop listing them, because I’m loath to say goodbye. Forty-six years is barely more than half a life, less than half of a career. Yet Philip Seymour Hoffman leaves behind riches.
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