“A lot of deaths feel sad. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s feels like a robbery,” my friend, Time’s television critic James Poniewozik wrote this afternoon on hearing the terrible news that the actor was dead at 46, leaving three young children. His death was reportedly due to a heroin overdose. Hoffman had sought treatment for addiction in 2013 in response to his relapse after more than two decades clean.
It’s a sadly perfect sentiment. Some artists’ deaths, like that of Heath Ledger’s, seem preposterously tragic because of the extreme youth of the people in question. Their passings force us to make accountings of what might have been possible. But like Roger Ebert, who died last spring, Philip Seymour Hoffman was an established part of the movies for as long as I’ve been watching them in any sort of serious way. We didn’t have to wonder what might have been, when the ways in which Hoffman acted as a blessing to every movie he was a part of is so abundantly obvious. The idea of a year at the theater without seeing Hoffman show up as a shaman of a music journalist, an irascible CIA agent, the founder of a new religion is almost incomprehensible.
Everyone will recall their own favorite Hoffman performances today, and for many days to come, but the ones that linger most with me is the men who were mysteries, sometimes even to themselves–or the men who, in seeing themselves with clear, cold eyes, were able to do great things.
It’s easy to think of The Master, for example, as a showcase primarily for the talents of Joaquin Phoenix, as Navy veteran Freddie Quell, who finds some refuge from his alcoholic loneliness in the new faith founded by Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), a charismatic charlatan, or of Amy Adams, who plays Dodd’s wife. And it would have been even easier for director Paul Thomas Anderson to make Dodd a merely ridiculous or mendacious figured. Instead, working together, he and Hoffman made Dodd perhaps the most sympathetic figure in the movie, despite the fact that Dodd is a self-indulgent fraud who latches onto a damaged alcoholic, intending to make Freddie both evidence of his theories and an excuse for Dodd to continue acting out.
Of course it’s ludicrous when Dodd declares that “I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist and a theoretical philosopher,” but the film is smart enough to understand Dodd’s charisma, when he ends this grandiose C.V. by noting that “But above all, I am a man, a hopelessly inquisitive man, just like you.” And when Dodd tells Freddie towards the end of the film, ” 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,” it’s possible to see the roots of Dodd’s megalomania. If we’re all destined to be led about, isn’t it better to try to improve the qualities of our marching orders, to have higher ambitions for our destination?
Hoffman played subtler frauds who spoke larger truths, too. As a priest accused of molesting a young, African-American parishioner in Doubt (a movie made sadly timely by other entertainment-world news this weekend), Hoffman’s character, Father Brendan Flynn, neither confessed nor was exonerated. Instead, the movie, an adaptation of John Patrick Shanley’s stage play, focused on what suspicion does to us. Sister James (Amy Adams) is a younger nun who first reports her suspicions about Father Flynn’s conduct to Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep). But over the course of the film, as complicating factors emerge, including the suggestion that the boy was caught drinking sacramental wine, the possibility that he is homosexual and being abused by his father as a result, and his mother’s focus on keeping him on track to graduation, it becomes less clear which nun’s inclinations are best serving justice.
Does Sister James’ inclination towards mercy make her a dupe, or a supporter of the principal that people must be considered innocent until proven guilty? Is Sister Aloysius’ pursuit of Father Flynn an attempt to get retribution for priestly authority over nuns, or a vigorous show of support for a victim? And when Father Flynn tells Sister James “There are people who go after your humanity, Sister, that tell you that the light in your heart is a weakness. Don’t believe it. It’s an old tactic of cruel people to kill kindness in the name of virtue,” is he appealing to her humanity, or using a neat trick to deflect her from her duties?
Even in less-weighty roles, Hoffman’s performances often raised clarifying questions. As Gust Avrakotos, a rakish CIA agent helping Rep. Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) funnel arms to the mujahideen who were fighting Soviet forces in Afghanistan, Hoffman got to speak essential truths about politics. “As long as the press sees sex and drugs behind the left hand, you can park a battle carrier behind the right hand and no one’s gonna fucking notice.” It was a role that made delicious use of Hoffman’s schlubbiness, which could be one of the most powerful tools in his arsenal as a character actor. “You’re no James Bond,” Wilson tells Avrakotos in one scene. “You’re no Thomas Jefferson, either,” Avrakotos snaps back. “Let’s call it even.” It’s a great, grubby little exchange that crystallizes a great, grubby little chapter in American history.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, released last year, continued that franchise’s tradition of surrounding its youthful leads with talented, established actors. Hoffman made his debut as Plutarch Heavensbee, the man charged with designing the elaborate games in which the young citizens of a totalitarian regime fight each other to the death. He was the quietest part of the film, which is full of outrageous fashions worn by the most privileged citizens, and macabre inventions that populate the arenas–and as a result, one of the most effective. Heavensbee spends much of the movie deftly managing President Snow (Donald Sutherland), the dictator who is eager to kill Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), the young woman from an impoverished district who is competing in the games, convincing Snow that it’s better for him to wait.
Heavensbee’s blandishments end up serving a larger purpose than merely keeping himself alive (his predecessor was executed in the previous movie). It turns out that he was the architect not just of a sadistic competition, but an outrageously clever plot to smuggle Katniss out of the arena and into the protection of a rebel organization. Hoffman’s turn as Heavensbee is a striking illustration that power can be most effective when it’s concealed and husbanded–and that young adult novels and films really do sometimes earn their reputation for exploring big issues and ideas.
Given the range of roles Hoffman took, and how well he performed in each of them, it feels a bit mundane to confess that my favorite was the one for which he won an Academy Award for Best Actor, Hoffman’s turn as Truman Capote in Capote, which focused on the period in Capote’s career during which he wrote In Cold Blood. It’s a performance that in some ways feels like it shouldn’t have been possible: Hoffman was six inches taller than Capote and burlier than the man he was channeling. But Hoffman managed to make himself appear diminutive, to channel the malice in Capote’s drawl. In a scene early in the movie where Capote explains that “Ever since I was a child, folks have thought they had me pegged, because of the way I am, the way I talk. And they’re always wrong,” watching Hoffman utter the line almost felt like a meta moment, a testament to Hoffman’s ability to shed himself and put on a new identity.
As Hoffman played him, Capote’s talents were inextricable from the things that could make him repulsive: the self-regarding need to be the center of attention that fractured his relationship with Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), who served as his research assistant on In Cold Blood, his desperation to be adored, which made him remarkably adept at cultivating Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.), one of the men accused of murdering a Kansas family, and his confidence in his own talent, which allowed Capote to marshall the resources he needed to work on the book for years before it was finished. Capote may not have been able to see himself clearly, but Hoffman certainly did.
But of course I feel a sentimental affection for Hoffman’s portrayal of another real-life writer, the rock critic and journalist Lester Bangs, in Cameron Crowe’s autobiographical movie Almost Famous. Bangs is a relatively minor character in the movie, the mentor to a young writer, who’s mostly on-screen to dispense meditations on the power of art, and to nudge his protege in the right direction. Even with that limited screen-time, though, and even when he’s talking on the phone, Hoffman managed to invest Bangs with the lacerating self-awareness that drove some of his best writing. And though the things he says about music and about writing could have been awfully cliche, they feel dreadfully true and important on this day of Hoffman’s death.
“Music, you now, true music – not just rock n roll – it chooses you,” Bangs says in Almost Famous. “It live in your car, or alone listening to your headphones, you know, with the cast scenic bridges and angelic choirs in your brain. It’s a place apart from the vast, benign lap of America.” The movies and the stage, where Hoffman was also widely accomplished, are more collective experiences, or at least they have been, than listening to music often is. But Hoffman’s performances made the “vast, benign lap of America” a remarkable place.
And in Almost Famous, Bangs advises his young colleague that “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone else when we’re uncool…My advice to you. I know you think those guys are your friends. You wanna be a true friend to them? Be honest, and unmerciful.” Hoffman was that to his characters, and they were remarkable for it. No wonder his loss feels so personal. We’ve been deprived of a man who, in giving us something honest and unmerciful every time he appeared on screen, was a true friend to so many of us.