In Defense of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Legacy

Lost far too soon, Philip Seymour Hoffman was the single most affecting reason I ever decided to watch movies in the first place.

Philip Seymour Hoffman was the greatest character actor who ever lived. So, yeah. There’s that.

Look, I get it. When death creeps into the equation, we love to jump to superlatives. During times of mourning, we tend to lionize people, especially entertainers, so much that it feels as though they were actually superhuman, figments of an imagination concentrated solely on hyperbolic visions of perfection and grandeur. It brings about feelings of overstated admiration, opinions as dictated by slanted memories as they are actual recollections. We remember only the good, because honestly: Who wants to focus on the bad when the universe goes and provides an adequate fill of tragedy when it wants to, anyway?

So, I beg you, please: Hear me out. When the actor died on 2 February, and I received two separate text messages from two separate people informing me of as much, I won’t lie — I got a little misty. Double that for the following day, when I finally had a chance to read reactions and obituaries, ultimately guiding me through a morning accompanied by a lump the size of the departed actor’s cheeks lodged in my esophagus. I then took a day or two to formulate perspective. Or, well, at least try to formulate perspective. It’s always an impossible feat when loss is involved, of course. There’s emptiness there, a void that has been physiologically proven impossible to fill. But I waited. It was imperative to do so.

Still, I couldn’t shake that thought: Philip Seymour Hoffman was the greatest character actor who ever lived. It’s utterly subjective, yes. And it also sounds a tad moronic for something as broad as a character actor, doesn’t it? A guy not often celebrated in the mainstream, maybe best known by younger generations for his recent work in the Hunger Games franchise, and he’s the best ever? Really? The man who once showed up looking like a dude who just came from the soup kitchen to receive an Oscar for channeling the soul of Truman Capote in ways previously deemed unimaginable? That dude? That guy? You’re kidding, right?

Actually, I’m not. “No words for this,” director Mike Nichols said in a statement after Hoffman died of an apparent drug overdose at age 46. “He was too great and we’re too shattered.” The last half of that phrase, “He was too great and we’re too shattered” … it gets me every time. The implication is more than what passes as more than normal. It’s as though the truth is unbearable, but the ramifications infinitely more troubling. Save for whatever he had in the can before that second day of February, the world won’t have the pleasure of watching this guy do his job better than his coworkers ever again. The universe was robbed of one of its crown jewels and the crime can’t be anything other than a cold case for the rest of time.

Back to my point. The year was 2008 and I could count the amount of movies I had seen in my life on less than two hands. I hated them. It cost too much money to see the things in theaters and not once had I ever felt attached and/or connected to anything I had seen on a big screen. It’s a fantasy world for fantasy stories and there were better things to do than carve out two hours to watch adults create an unlikely reality in which we were asked to emotionally invest. Music occupied that entire portion of my brain for the first 20-plus years. What could cinema possibly offer?

But then I eventually found some friends who loved the medium, became exposed to the many joys of something called Netflix, and began (reluctantly) to dive in headfirst. The most valuable moment in this process came in the form of Tamara Jenkins’ 2007 family drama, The Savages. On the heels of a particularly depressing holiday season, I found myself alone with a copy of the DVD on Christmas night. The bitingly sad and intellectually reflective dialogue between the caring Laura Linney and academically conflicted Hoffman as the film’s two lead roles has stuck with me to this day, and more importantly to me, helped soften the blows that time period brought.

The performances, meanwhile, left an impact for which I will forever be unequivocally grateful. Linney was great, yes, but Hoffman… my god. The contradiction that married humility with confidence. The delivery of words so stern, so authoritative, so believable, so mysterious, so angry, so unsure. The portrait of a tortured soul — perhaps his tortured soul — trying to answer questions he despised considering. Hoffman nailed those ambiguously fascinating ideals all in that one tiny performance.

I was hooked. For life.

Instead of exploring the outrageously wide world of movies next, I made it my life’s goal to explore the not-nearly-as-wide world of that one actor in particular. My expectations ran amok for Doubt, and by the time I saw it, I would tell anyone who listened that it was my “favorite movie of all time” because of the doctorate course in acting Hoffman and Meryl Streep combined to enlist (I still believe the on/off, dark/light sequence in Father Brendan Flynn’s office is one of the most genius displays of performance I’ve ever witnessed).

I smiled as Charlie Wilson’s War afforded him the opportunity to showcase his addicting form of brash, no-nonsense electricity as he took on the role of Gust Avrakotos in unforgettable fashion. Capote inspired me to read In Cold Blood almost immediately due to the actor’s Oscar-winning transcendent role as the book’s author. From there, it was on to the head-spinning Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, the criminally overlooked Owning Mahowny and, of course, the mildly iconic take on Lester Bangs in Almost Famous.

These were all among the first 20 or so movies I watched, ever. Imagine my surprise, then, when I came to realize how acting’s status quo actually wasn’t the type of brilliance this guy continued to offer up time and time again, no matter the role, no matter the genre, no matter the narrative. I understood the lore of heavy hitters such as George Clooney or Brad Pitt or Matt Damon, but they all lacked the type of obsessive workmanship that Hoffman reveled in embodying. Daniel Day-Lewis and Christian Bale can both be spectacularly transformative, but the ease (and sparsity) with which they work causes an intangible disconnect between performer and consumer. Actors such as Jeff Bridges or Sean Penn or Russell Crowe or Kevin Spacey or Tom Hanks — they can all be great, yes, but they can also be entirely plastic, a type of predictable platitude hard to overcome when you have both reputation and skill. Even the second-tier guys with which he often shared the character actor tag — Christopher Plummer, Javier Bardem or, say, Paul Giamatti — aren’t quite on his level because none of them have the kind of depth he consistently brought to whatever project he took on.

Plus, this guy was funny. Boogie Nights brought forth a side of the man almost impossible to envision if your introduction to his work was, well, The Savages. Even a quick cameo in The Invention of Lying was laugh-out-loud entertaining. Dude was like a chameleon, the way he could slip into a baseball uniform in Moneyball before suiting up for a job as an introverted limo driver in Jack Goes Boating, all the while never missing a step. Genres meant nothing in his world. From the theater to the big screen, all he really ever wanted to do was act.

And act he did. Hoffman’s was a unique if not utterly singular approach to performance in the modern day. Not once did he leave fans shortchanged. As PopMatters’ own Bill Gibron astutely noted when counting down his 10 favorite films from the actor, “Hoffman’s name on a cast list meant that said film instantly became more interesting.” Rarely does a sentence capture so perfectly the feeling surrounding a master’s impact on his own artistry.

Hoffman was easy to root for not because he looked like you (much like many writers have since claimed), but rather because he felt like you. Or, as so many of his movies proved, it seemed as though he felt like you. Complicated. Ambiguous. Hard. Even when brilliantly tackling such a spellbinding role as The Master‘s Lancaster Dodd, there was something about his insanity that ultimately appeared redeeming by the time the credits rolled. He made you feel that character’s discrepancies, even if those discrepancies were somewhat despicable. This was an actor who painted his pictures with all the crayons in the box, even if he knew nobody would ever hang the result on a wall.

“For me, acting is torturous, and it’s torturous because you know it’s a beautiful thing,” Hoffman told the New York Times Magazine six years ago. “I was young once, and I said, ‘That’s beautiful and I want that.’ Wanting it is easy, but trying to be great — well, that’s absolutely torturous.”

There’s been a lot of talk about substance abuse and drug addiction and support systems and “feeling life too much” since Hoffman passed away far sooner than anyone could have predicted or preferred. His struggles were chronicled long before an early February day stole him from the cinematic universe that loved him so, not to mention a family that will undoubtedly struggle to pick up the pieces of their lives.

It’s somewhat of a strange caveat to an otherwise brilliantly meticulous professional life. Rarely did you hear gripes about him missing call times and never did those “hard to work with” a-typical tales creep through into media reports. Yet as forlorn as the movie world continues to be in the wake of his death, it ought not be lost on anyone that, as fans of cinema, we were lucky that he ever decided to become an actor in the first place. Because without him, the movies wouldn’t be nearly as layered. Without him, some stories would have lacked some serious soul. And without him, of course, I, for one, would have never made the decision to explore and subsequently fall head over heels in love with an entire art-form of which I spent so many years robbing myself.

So, thank you, Phil. To me, you’re the best who ever did it.