Remembering Philip Seymour Hoffman, One of the Greatest Actors of Any Generation


Pay attention to newspapers long enough, and you’ll realize that they assign obituaries in advance so that they’re ready to go when some august presence exits this planet. That’s possible because the arc of a life, even a great one, usually has become apparent by the years before its end. (Of course, that’s not always true. Can you imagine how many times in the last year the Times has adjusted the intro to Woody Allen’s obit?)

Today, they’ve all been caught flatfooted. Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of the greatest actors of his or any other generation, has died well before the full arc of his life should have been clear to anyone. Early reports blame heroin, which may compound the tragedy, making it another demonstration of the weakness shared by all of us — as that damnable drug has proven again and again, even human genius is no match for it.

Rather than an arc, here’s two points, recently plotted, that I think reveal something of the breadth of Hoffman’s talent and dedication to his art.

His turn in the latest Hunger Games film demonstrated that it’s still possible, in that Alec Guinness way, to appear in a franchise without becoming a cog in its machinery. His first appearance in Catching Fire, at a garish ball, is sprung on the audience like a little trap. Suddenly, he’s just there, sweeping Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss into a suggestive, discomfiting dance.

He’s secretive and self-amused, wickedly charismatic, possessed of that unlikely radiance simmmering inside only the greatest screen actors. He’s the only person in the (pretty good!) movie who holds the screen with Lawrence — the sparks kindled between them catch much more fire than we ever feel between Katniss and her wannabe boyfriends. It’s no coincidence that her scene with Hoffman is Lawrence’s best in the film; in its controlled, coiled-up wit, it’s also superior, to my mind, to her Oscar-nominated shout-match with Amy Adams in American Hustle.

That Hunger Games sequel appeared late in 2013 in thousands of theaters. But don’t think that meant Hoffman was going the route of just turning in a couple days of sparkling work for blockbuster money. In the spring of that same year, he inspired a brace of similarly great performances in just one theater, Manhattan’s Labyrinth, in the premiere of Bob Glaudini’s A Family for All Occasions. The play was intimate, upsetting, wonderfully acted, as raw as skinned knees, its characters — an unhappy, downwardly mobile family — desperate for any taste of the happiness that American life is supposed to promise. Hoffman’s direction was superb; when the kids and parents clawed at each other, having no one else to claw at, the show proved an urgent, human heartbreaker, alert to all the ugly feelings that have animated so many of Hoffman’s own great performances over the years.

This paper deemed the show “an unhappy triumph”; I was looking forward to his next directorial effort just as much as I was looking forward to his next ferociously honest character role — and his next swanning turn in some blockbuster.

Rest in peace, Philip Seymour Hoffman. And fuck heroin.

Amy Nicholson, the chief film critic at L.A. Weekly, adds this:

So many roles. So much talent. And such a shock to have it hammered home that Philip Seymour Hoffman was just 46 and yet had spent 23 years — literally half his life — in sobriety. I expect today’s gut-punching news will ache every time I rewatch one of this generation’s greatest movies: The Master, Magnolia, Almost Famous, Happiness, and even The Big Lebowski and Mission: Impossible III. But right now, I’m thinking of Hoffman as Synedoche, New York‘s Caden Cotard, the brilliant but flawed artist who ends the film, and his existence, wandering through the worlds he created and wondering if it was enough. It was, it definitely was. Still, I wish there was more.

See also: On the Sexiness of Philip Seymour Hoffman, by Stephanie Zacharek.