News reports today say that Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead in his New York apartment by NYPD. He was 46. According to IMDB.com one of his last filming roles was for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2.
While I had seen movies he was in and never took two seconds to think about it (like Twister or Scent of a Woman) and I didn’t watch his work in Paul Thomas Anderson movies until much later, it was his role as Lester Bangs in Almost Famous that led me to love his work as an actor. He wasn’t in the film very much and the name Lester Bangs meant more to my father (who used to read his interviews in Creem magazine) than it did to me, but just those quick moments on the phone with William Miller about the industry of cool and the illusions of rock and roll were powerful as a teenager. It gave you that sort of adult insight into the future that few roles really worked in. When you’re young you always have this hope for everything to go great like in the world of William Miller but for Lester Bangs he was a prominent rock critic with a voice that people read and even then his life was a shambles of drug binges and doing nothing at two in the morning because he had very few friends. Hoffman brought that out of the role in a way that few movies before it had really done, and few movies have since. Anyone could play the part, few could reflect it.
He has had a lot of roles where he was just supposed to be a supporting actor but when a director like Charlie Kaufman allowed him to give everything he had to acting in Synecdoche, New York you saw an incredible range of emotion. It’s hard to put into words what made Phil different from other actors and I guess for me it was that he was a lot more human. For some this might have been due to his physical stature as a larger man without what one would call Hollywood looks but for me it was how he talked and how he interacted with human beings. Rarely did I feel I was watching a movie. I always felt like I was watching a person. Especially so in Capote, where he was playing a real human who acted more like a character. Others have played Capote, few brought the humanity.
The last film of his I’ve watched that really struck me was Doubt. It wasn’t the most recent I watched or his latest role, but the one where I saw Hoffman at his best. The film plays off the theme of its title perfectly and by the end of it, you don’t know who to believe. Meryl Streep leads a crusade against a priest she just knows molested a child and with any other characters or situations, you would be completely fine to support her crusade and even the lie she uses to push it. But Hoffman humanizes a priest in ways I’ve never seen an actor do and makes you truly believe in him, even when evidence doesn’t add up. The film’s plot tries to push you into the direction that giving in to resigning instead of fighting it was an admittance of guilt, but by the end of the movie you could see it as a compromise of privacy. I went into the film thinking it was going to play up the dramas of priest molestation and instead came out questioning my own accusations and convictions in the subject. I don’t know if another could do that.
Reports from the NYPD state that Hoffman died of an accidental overdose. We’re just finding out about his death and already the believed cause has leaked. This might push others to make judgments on the man, and that’s fine. That’s what celebrity culture is about. Everything is out in the open. It was social media before it existed. I just wish for the sake of his family and friends he got at least 24 hours before the details were made public. Lester Bangs also died in New York City in an accidental overdose. I don’t know if that’s coincidence or what but it made me pause.
Art can be a wonderful thing. Some would say not to care about one man who died from heroin. “It’s just a celebrity.” But I don’t know the man. I only know his art. And I write in tribute of that.
Addendum: There’s no mention of The Master because that film came at a difficult time in my life and thinking about it just brings up those feelings. On Twitter I talked about my favourite Hoffman roles and The Master would probably be second but just thinking of that film is a struggle for me.
Photo courtesy of photofest from the New York Times slide show.