The human loss is tragic. It always is when people die young. The creative force and imagination that Philip Seymour Hoffman brought to the screen will be irreplaceable. After I first heard the news I was shocked as so many were. When I saw the reports that Hoffman had done a stint in rehab in May of last year I was unbelievably saddened and disheartened. He had stayed clean for 23 years. Then last year he slipped up and today he is gone. What a powerful reminder to those of us forever in recovery of the importance of our own sobriety. Hoffman leaves behind three kids – all under the age of ten.
Hoffman’s career started on Law & Order in 1991. That’s his first officially cast role according to IMDB. I first saw him on the documentary: Liberty! as Joseph Plumb Martin. Later that year he got his break in P.T. Anderson’s Boogie Nights. He was never what you’d call an established actor though. He played the woeful assistant Brandt in the Coen brothers’ cult classic The Big Lebowski, a male nurse Phil Parma in Magnolia, and the ill-fated Freddie Miles in The Talented Mr. Ripley. He played the writer Joseph Turner White in David Mamet’s State and Main, just one in a slew of collaborative efforts between Hoffman and Mamet that would span both film and theater. In 2003, Hoffman delivered a masterful performance in the film Owning Mahoney, a film that must have seemed, in many ways, almost too autobiographical for Hoffman. It was an almost robotic role that perfectly summed up the sad life of an addict, something that now, we all know that Hoffman must have known far too well.
It was in 2005 that Hoffman would finally get the critical acclaim that he had so long deserved winning an Oscar for his role as Truman Capote in “Capote.” Who else could have done that role? It’s nearly impossible to imagine anyone else embodying a character as perfectly as Hoffman did. As we sit back today and take stock of what we’ve lost it may be in some way productive to look back on our favorite Hoffman roles. I know for me, his turn as Lester Bangs in 2000’s Almost Famous will always hold a special place in my heart as will his performance in Owning Mahoney, Before the Devil Knows Your Dead and one of my favorite characters brought to life Gust Avrakotos in Charlie Wilson’s War. Who can forget his great stories about the zen master? At the same time, it is difficult to forget his role in The Master as Cult leader Lancaster Dodd. The range of characters that Hoffman played is nothing short of astounding. He played Art Howe in the 2011 film Moneyball, Plutarch Heavensbee in the Hunger Games films, Father Brendan Flynn in Doubt, and a Craps player in the small, unheralded film Hard Eight. It doesn’t matter where you look in Hoffman’s dizzying array of work his performances speak for themselves.
The feeling among creative types in and around Hollywood is one of profound sadness and rightfully so. Many writers – myself included – are as disappointed as audiences everywhere that they will not get to see another Hoffman performance. Our sadness is one masked by the incredible disappointment that we will never get the opportunity to work with the man. What’s equally devastating is that Hoffman was just 46 years old. I’m reminded of many of the feelings I had when Heath Ledger passed away. It wasn’t just a young actor passing away it was the suddenness of the loss and the incredible untapped potential that existed for him. I have that same feeling with Philip Seymour Hoffman. The drugs element only makes this all the more difficult to process. As one person said: “heroin didn’t deserve to take this man” and they were right. How does a man who has been sober for over twenty years succumb to his addiction after it would appear, at least on the surface, that he has beaten it? The truth of the matter is that no one ever beats their addiction. They merely keep it at bay. We can never look at life without seeing it through the lens of our problems. This is something that, in hindsight, Hoffman showed through his body of work. He played an addict in no fewer than five films.
One of the terrifying questions that such a loss places on us as a society is how to remember such a man. We honor the good there is no doubt about that, but what do we do about the bad? Hoffman was found in a bathroom with a needle in his arm, a bag of Heroin next to the body. I don’t want to remember him that way. I don’t think anyone does and the truth is that through most of his 23 year career he was, to the best of our knowledge, completely sober. Indeed, what good does it do to remember that sad side of him at all? The simple answer is that it reminds us we’re human. Hoffman was admitted to a rehab facility in May of last year for his Heroin addiction. I suspect more will come out about this in the coming days. It cut his life short. It robbed millions of fans of many great performances and it robbed three kids of their father. The heartbreak that the Hoffman family is going through is echoed throughout the nation so much so that it was my belief that we should cancel the Super Bowl.
I think the best and perhaps the only way that we can deal with this immense loss is to remember Hoffman through the characters he portrayed. What else is there to do, really? I think it altogether fitting then that this tribute end with my favorite story told through the lens of Hoffman in his great portrayal of Gus Avrakotos in Charlie Wilson’s War.
“There’s a little boy and on his 14th birthday he gets a horse… and everybody in the village says, “how wonderful. The boy got a horse” And the Zen master says, “we’ll see.” Two years later, the boy falls off the horse, breaks his leg, and everyone in the village says, “How terrible.” And the Zen master says, “We’ll see.” Then, a war breaks out and all the young men have to go off and fight… except the boy can’t cause his legs all messed up. and everybody in the village says, “How wonderful.”
Charlie Wilson: Now the Zen master says, “We’ll see.”