Remembering Philip Seymour Hoffman

Posted In: Culture, Biography,   From Issue 785   By: Mark Leffler

13th February, 2014     0

 “Phil Hoffman…did not die from an overdose of heroin — he died from heroin. We should stop implying that if he’d just taken the proper amount then everything would have been fine.”   - Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin

Every generation seems to get its’ own set of tragic and heartbreaking celebrity overdoses. For my parent’s generation it was Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe. For the Baby Boomers it was Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. For my generation (the tail end of the Boomers) and the younger set it was John Belushi, Heath Ledger and now Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Hoffman’s death seems more tragic than Ledger’s passing in some way. There is no doubt that Ledger was an outstanding actor, but most moviegoers only saw him in a few roles over a short period of time. As incredible as his performance was in Brokeback Mountain, it was seen by comparatively fewer viewers than the millions who enjoyed his crazy turn as The Joker in The Dark Knight.

Hoffman’s death has hit harder for a few reasons. First, he had a career in movies and theater beginning around 1991 with his appearance in a small but memorable role in Scent of a Woman. There were dozens of noteworthy performances on stage and screen that spanned two decades. And he just seemed to get better and better over those years. Recently he had triumphed on Broadway as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman. And he had broken out of supporting roles and became a leading man, albeit an unusual one, without the good looks of a Brad Pitt or a George Clooney.

Also, he was thought to have been living a clean and sober life after having struggled with substance abuse and alcoholism in his early Twenties. He spoke honestly and openly about his alcoholism and addiction, and with about twenty years of sobriety most of us presumed he had beaten his demons. Most of us were wrong.

Aaron Sorkin, creator of The West Wing and author of the screenplay for Charlie Wilson’s War, and himself a recovering addict summed it up well: “He didn't die because he was partying too hard or because he was depressed — he died because he was an addict on any day of the week with a y in it."

British actor and comedian Russell Brand also shared some insights into Hoffman’s death in an essay in the British newspaper, The Guardian: “The reason I am so non-judgmental of Hoffman or Bieber and so condemnatory of the pop cultural tinsel that adorns the reporting around them is that I am a drug addict in recovery, so like any drug addict I know exactly how Hoffman felt when he "went back out". In spite of his life seeming superficially great, in spite of all the praise and accolades, in spite of all the loving friends and family, there is a predominant voice in the mind of an addict that supersedes all reason and that voice wants you dead. This voice is the unrelenting echo of an unfulfillable void.”

Part of the sense of loss is that Hoffman appeared to have a long career ahead of him, possibly a career as rich as one of his co-stars, Paul Newman. There is an overwhelming feeling that we have been cheated out of a long list of great film and theater performances.

Recently I was enjoying Donald Sutherland in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, a film Hoffman had a supporting role in. Hoffman appeared poised to have a great long list of great roles ahead of him, much like Sutherland has had, filled with both leading roles and meaty supporting parts. Now all we can do is look back on two decades of outstanding performances that will be his legacy, hopefully more important in the long run than the sad circumstances of his death.

This past week I have been binge watching a series of Hoffman’s movies, beginning with Scent of a Woman and weaving a path to The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. Since some film fans may have missed some of Hoffman’s better performances, here is a list of ten of his best performances to search out and enjoy.  While our hearts ache for the loss suffered by Hoffman’s family and friends, Ars longa, vita brevis. Life is brief. Art is long.

So, in chronological order:
Scent of a Woman (1992): Every protagonist needs an antagonist and Hoffman sparkled right out of the gate in his first significant supporting role as George Willis, Jr., spoiled rich brat in this memorable coming of age film as Chris O’Donnell accompanies blind veteran Al Pacino on a last hurrah in New York City. Hoffman doesn’t command a lot of screen time, but his few scenes paint a memorable portrait of a manipulative spoiled child of privilege at an elite boarding school. And the finale is one of film’s great courtroom scenes.

Hard Eight (1996): This film is a personal favorite, and the feature film debut of the great filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson, who featured Hoffman in five of his eight feature films. Hard Eight is a Vegas neo-noire drama starring Philip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly and Gwyneth Paltrow. Hoffman is only featured in a brief scene as a smack talking craps shooter, but it’s a memorable scene, nonetheless, and reason enough to seek out this gem of a film.

Boogie Nights (1997): This is the first film where I took notice of Hoffman, and it happens to be one of the best films I’ve ever seen. P.T. Anderson’s sophomore film is a nostalgic look at the Seventies world of adult films. Burt Reynolds leads a crew of actors and filmmakers that includes Hoffman. He played Scotty, a minor crewmember that develops a serious and heartbreaking crush on new porn star Mark Wahlberg. It was a touching and sensitive performance that made viewers take notice.

The Big Lebowski (1998): Maybe Hoffman’s most loved film; Lebowski is a cult classic that bears repeated viewings. Hoffman’s Brant is the Big Lebowski’s personal assistant who serves as a mediator between the two Lebowskis. This one belongs in everyone’s DVD collection.

Flawless (1999): Starring opposite Robert DeNiro, Hoffman played DeNiro’s upstairs neighbor who is a drag queen. When DeNiro’s retired cop has a stroke, Hoffman is hired to give him voice lessons to help him recover his speaking voice. Hoffman shined as the pre-op transvestite and brought a real humanity and depth to what could have been a tired cinema cliché. 

Magnolia (1999): Once again Hoffman was drafted by P.T. Anderson, this time in the role of nurse to a terminally ill Jason Robards. Hoffman showed an aching honesty and a deft touch in his scenes in this memorable and affecting ensemble drama that deals with family relationships.

Capote (2005): This may be the role that Hoffman is most remembered for and it’s the part that garnered him an Academy Award. Who would have thought that an actor of his size could have nailed the voice and physical mannerisms of the strange little man that was Truman Capote?

Mission Impossible III (2006): Hoffman showed that he could carry a leading role in a big budget action film playing a sadistically evil crime lord in this J.J. Abrams directed installment of the MI franchise. While he had played a series of sad sack nerdy characters, here he is chilling and convincing as a heavy. He showed what a serious actor could do with a bad guy role.

Synecdoche, New York (2008): My favorite Hoffman film, but one that hasn’t been seen by many film lovers having spent little time in the theaters. Charlie Kaufman wrote and directed this epic film about life and love and art and loss that encompasses the entire adult life of Hoffman’s character, a theater director obsessed with creating a life size recreation of New York City. Heartbreaking at times, but with a quirky and odd sense of humor, like Kaufman’s other films.

Doubt (2008): Adapted from the play of the same name, Hoffman played a priest who is suspected by other staff at a parochial school of having an improper relationship with a young boy. Hoffman was at times defensive, at times indignant, as the story played out to its memorable conclusion. Another well deserved Oscar nomination for Best Actor.

Honorable Mention: The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Master, Along Came Polly, Twister, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Happiness, Punch Drunk Love, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Charlie Wilson’s War.


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