Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead today. The actor won an Oscar and the affections of a wide audience throughout his celebrated career, earning heralds on stage and on screen, building a resume of work so prolific and consistent that it’s shockingly easy to forget one great role in favor of another. Preliminary details remain fragmented as to the cause of Hoffman’s passing, but those that have emerged paint a dark picture. He was forty-six.
Hoffman found early mainstream success with small roles in a variety of big-ticket Hollywood pictures, The Big Lebowski, Scent Of A Woman, Nobody’s Fool. After turning heads in Todd Solondz’s Happiness, a collaboration, Hard Eight, with wunderkind auteur Paul Thomas Anderson blossomed into a classic working relationship of director and muse, and Anderson’s successive three films (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love) elevated Hoffman’s profile and pushed him to riveting emotional extremes. He became the center of great and lesser movies, stealing scenes whether central to the narrative or not. Even in high-octane popcorn fare, he demanded rapt attention–his weary heavy in Mission: Impossible III is one of Bruckheimer-era action cinema’s great throwaway villains. He lent a necessary gravitas to Almost Famous; played ugly and put-upon in 25th Hour; got ribald in Cold Mountain; wasn’t afraid to giggle in Along Came Polly. The list is long and remarkable. It did not go unrewarded by the Academy, either, as Hoffman was nominated for Oscar gold four times. His first time up, he won Best Actor.
Capote is the rare gem that, after receiving great plaudits on initial release, has improved and deepened with age. Its dark, lonely winter would not be possible without Hoffman, who cloisters himself within a Truman Capote on the verge of both greatness and a fall from grace. That great baritone grumble pursed into legato chirps, the intimidating heft withdrawn behind dreaming, boozy gestures–it’s a grand performance, an embodiment of a well-known public figure that fits its expected persona just enough to reveal the aching desperation that drove both the demons and better angels of the artist’s nature. Hoffman won an Oscar, and in accepting it gave his usual public air of raw clay; even dressed for style he looked rumpled, askew, as if the meticulous craft he brought to his work left him little energy or regard for personal panache. He could be molded and mold himself into so many places; he could fill a casting call from a single chair.
The tenor of his leading roles, though, rings different today. Hoffman in a supporting role could pivot from frozen neuroses to double-barrel (often screaming) hysterics, but the times when he took a film by the reins almost invariably find the actor embodying desperate, contracted men. Owning Mahowny, Love Liza, Synecdoche, New York, Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, The Master, Capote. When he chose a grand canvas, he worked in deep blue, a shade of which he seemed to possess an endless supply. By which, we now know, he would be overwhelmed. Now comes the celebration of the mourned artist, a genius of control, whose presence so many realize now they are really going to miss, one for the ages, a sad man at rest. If his way out was his torture, in its wake may he find peace. The rest of us…well, I always had a particular love for the Hoffman that purred like a cat. Waltzing in ten characters late, slipping audience, script and scene into his pocket in ten seconds, a choice bon mot, maybe, a perfect exit. Shadowed with soul, the man lit up a room.