Philip Seymour Hoffman: An appreciation

3 minute read
As Rusty in “Flawless” (1999). © 1999-Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures, Inc.-All rights reserved.
As Rusty in “Flawless” (1999). © 1999-Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures, Inc.-All rights reserved.

It was 1991, in a supporting role in an episode of Law and Order, that I first noticed the then-unknown Philip Seymour Hoffman. How interesting that fat kid with the mop of red hair is, I thought.

Then he showed up in small, Hoffman-infused roles in a series of important and obscure movies. He was a classic "there's that guy, what's his name?" actor: John C. Reilly and William H. Macy seemed to sneak into the popular consciousness the same way, playing riveting character parts that give the final project true dimension.

But then there was the supporting role, Freddie, in The Talented Mr. Ripley and his mesmerizing, lyrical Rusty in the not unflawed film, Flawless. I realized that when he was on the screen, that’s all I wanted to see. Few actors demand our attention in quite the same way.

So, as with everyone, I was rocked when I found out that two years ago he took that reported first drink after his admitted 22 years of sobriety. And since that sip, we did not know that, like a supernova, the black hole would reach us after he was already gone.

Not gone to those who really knew him, of course — his partner, his children, his family, and his true close friends. As much as we hurt and grieve, our loss is not like their loss, and we shouldn’t pretend that it is. They have spent the last two years watching and probably railing against that dark night coming. He will be forever gone for his partner, his children, his family, and his true close friends in a way many of us do know, from our own lives. A life gone too soon. They also have the added burden of private pain that will always be public.

We mourn because his work gave us, by performance osmosis, his passion, his understanding of human behavior, and his joy — they bled into our own skin as few others could. But we also mourn from the shock and lack of comprehension of why. We know there is a disease called addiction. But there were no true hints that the star would explode, no feeling of inevitability as with others we have lost. He was not the party celebrity, the late-to-the-set actor, the public disgrace. He was the dedicated artist who seemed to be living any actor’s dream. He was respected, he had a long partnership and three children — he was a success in every way we measure.

Yes, he went into a 10-day rehab program some months ago, and we heard reports from theatergoers that his portrayal of Willie Loman was more uneven, night to night, than people wanted to admit. And we worried about his weight’s effect on his health. (We were shocked when James Gandolfini died of a heart attack, but not surprised.) Neighbors say Hoffman was a neighbor, school parents say he was a parent, and colleagues and fans alike say he was a great, great actor. No one said he was a star.

But, after 22 years he took that drink that led to his death with a needle in his arm. After 22 years he decided to leave his three children, friends, colleagues, and fans. After 22 years he was that burning star that doesn’t care about the combustible consequences. The same ego that breathed life into the immaculate and incomparably varied and nuanced characters couldn’t comprehend his own character. And like all his characters, his humanity and flaws go to our collective core. We see him and feel him, and we thought he was us.

Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performances were great literature to be kept, savored, and watched again and again. They will be. But never with clear-eyed awe, as in the past. There will always be a tear clouding the view.

We say thank you, and we say we're so sorry we couldn't be enough.

For another appreciation of Philip Seymour Hoffman, click here.

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation