Man, I hate heroin addiction so much right now. Imagine that sentence read in the magnificent, deep, rumbling voice of Philip Seymour Hoffman, and you’ll know how I felt when I heard of the actor’s death this past weekend from an apparent drug overdose. We hear about drug addiction when it claims young people, but just because you’re past 40 and clean for more than 20 years doesn’t mean you have it kicked. Philip Seymour Hoffman knew that, and yet knowing it didn’t save him. Don’t do heroin, people. It’s bad news.

I first remember seeing him in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1996 debut film Hard Eight, in which he plays an obnoxious mullet-wearing shooter at the craps table who baits the old gambler hero (Philip Baker Hall) into making a reckless bet: “Jesus Christ, why don’t you have some fun? Fun! Fun!” This electrifying few minutes must have inspired Anderson; Hoffman would go on to appear in all of his films except for There Will Be Blood, and he was always memorable in them. We all remember him as the gay grip in Boogie Nights screaming “I’m such a fucking idiot!” to himself over and over in his car, but he also did a much funnier bit in Punch-Drunk Love screaming “Shut up!” over the phone to Adam Sandler. Of course, his performance as the religious guru in The Master earned him one of his four Oscar nominations, and it’s a fascinating turn, with bursts of coarseness firing out from underneath Lancaster Dodd’s fastidious exterior.

Sometimes when I hear of an actor’s death, I think of one iconic moment or performance from his or her career, but Hoffman gave too many of them for that to happen with me. Who could forget his blazing turn as Lester Bangs in Almost Famous, or the gutter-mouthed foreign policy expert in Charlie Wilson’s War, or the desperate heroin addict (oh, man!) in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead? He worked mostly for reputable directors, with the occasional blockbuster thrown in like The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Mission: Impossible 3. Check out the fight scene from the latter, in which Hoffman plays both the villain and Tom Cruise’s character disguised as the villain, and you’ll see the actor do a great impression of Cruise’s determined face. To the part of a creepy loner who sexually harasses random women in Todd Solondz’ Happiness, he managed to find the man’s aching loneliness and twisted need for connection. Even in a brief cameo in Strangers With Candy, he managed something good. It’s much easier to name the films he didn’t contribute meaningfully to, like the monotonous drama Love Liza, which he did as a favor for his brother directing the film.


There are, however, some unheralded performances worth checking out. He played a dorky screenwriter in David Mamet’s farce State and Main and held down the center of the proceedings while the craziness swirled around him. Tamara Jenkins’ comedy The Savages was one of 2007’s best movies, and it starred Hoffman as a man coming to terms with his senile father’s impending death and the abuse he used to get from the old man. I remember being enthralled by the interplay between Hoffman and Laura Linney as his sister — the actors neither looked like each other, nor had they acted together before, and yet they trade banter with the effortlessness of siblings who’ve known each other their whole lives. He turned in a nice bit as an ineffectual Native American-rights activist in the criminally underrated 1998 romance Next Stop, Wonderland. I also have a soft spot for his supporting performance in the otherwise disposable 2004 comedy Along Came Polly as a fat slob of a best friend. It’s the sort of role that Jack Black could have easily played, and Hoffman uses it to steal the film away from Ben Stiller and Jennifer Aniston. He turns in a great piece of physical comedy during a pickup basketball game and goes to an artist’s gallery opening and loudly says, “His art sucks, but he’s got the best weed” in front of a roomful of black-clad artistes who pretend he isn’t there.

The tributes have poured in from all corners. Despite his bulky frame and his booming voice, Hoffman had such a chameleon-like ability to play different characters that it’s difficult to pick up a recurrent theme in his work. Still, Dana Stevens on Slate said it best: He brought something unexpected and beautiful to each part that he played. I’ve heard that there’s never a right time for truly great artists to die, because they are always evolving and experimenting, and there always seems to be good work ahead of them. I know I should be thinking about his longtime companion and his three children, but I can’t help thinking of the great performances he would have given us in the next 30 years or so, and it makes me deeply sad and a bit angry. I’ll let his Lester Bangs have the last word.


    • Missed that one when it was in the theaters. Will have to go back for it now. Might also see “Flawless,” “Jack Goes Boating,” and “The Big Lebowski” (I saw that one already, but I don’t remember his appearance in it).

  1. I wouldn’t call Love Liza a monotonous drama. It was a dark comedy about a gasoline huffer that was entertaining and unique but a little weird too, kind of like Hoffman himself.

  2. Upon hearing this news the thing that came to mind was the systemic withering media criticism of Bob Woodard, even so far as questioning his lifetime body of work, for his accurate depiction of last months of John Belushi, who, of course, died in a similar manner found dead in bed at the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood after several days of abuse of heroin mixed with cocaine. Woodard was asked by one of Belushi’s wife’s’ relatives to “investigate” the “suspicious nature ” of his death. What was revealed was that everybody in contact with Belushi was aware of his “problem” and some fellow actors were apparently “enablers” (kind of like Heath Ledger -BTW). A physician on the set of “Blues Brothers” advised the director and producer who were evidently unwilling to confront one of their stars with obvious physical signs of deterioration that “they better make as many movies with this guy as soon as possible because he was going to be dead in a year”–(Uncannily accurate). Unwilling to face accuracy Belushi’s wife claimed that Woodard was “exploiting Belushi’s memory”. Maybe she should have been more supportive. So here we are, “celebrating” the “genius” of yet another Hollywood screw-up. Obviously guys like this are not irreplaceable. It must be tough to be on the set with or employ people like this because who knows which PSH will show up-the actor or the addict. I feel sorry for his family because they really got screwed by his selfishness. Give us a break and stop pretending that these guys were “geniuses”- it’s just baloney.

      • Pretty good reply –if you are a third grader. Actually, I have seen most of them, but that isn’t the point is it? I’m just not into obligatory necrophilistic Hollywood hero worship, and you -at your level -should be writing more thoughtful layered “remembrances” of your “genius” heroes instead of this kind of half warmed up spittle.

        I would suggest for the analysis of the parallels of drug/alcohol use and Hollywood industrial denial that you read Woodward’s “Wired” or Robert Sellers’ “Hell Raisers” about the sad but frequently entertaining lives of O’toole, Burton, Reed,Harris, etc. (at least two of THOSE guys WERE geniuses). When you become more literate you might even be a pretty good film critic

        • I agree with you skeptic. I was in rehab two years ago for an addiction problem (not heroin), and the dudes on heroin were different from the rest. They would smile and smirk a lot and go through the motions, but they and everyone else knew they were going to back on it once they got out. I know of five that are now OD dead. I had to give mouth-to-mouth to one in the rehab facility bathroom after he told me just the day before how he was really going to beat this thing (he said that to me to get me out of the room so he could shoot up). Basically, when you cut through all the BS, they were trying to kill themselves but couldn’t do it with a gunshot to their head. So the Russian roulette was the needle instead of the gun. Much easier and less painful and no responsibility for doing the job. I don’t hate those folks for that; we all have little chunks of the grotesque in our system. But folks like Hoffman stand before their family and wife and kids and co-workers and pretend they are some wunderkind when in reality they just are a slug crawling in their own created mess. Maybe that’s why he was an actor. Maybe he was good at pretending. But he wasn’t good at being honest with anyone, including himself. That’s why I get tired of all this “he tried so hard” and “if he had only had a little more help” and “if only his family and friends had intervened” crap. He couldn’t handle living in this world so he killed himself and that’s about it. In the end it has little to do with the heroin. The addicts I’ve known choose heroin because it is the easiest way to kill oneself.

          • Claude:That is about the most concise accurate description of dealing with addicts,(particularly heroin addicts), that I have ever seen. Physiologists postulate that the brain chemistry of heroin addicts is so altered from normal by the drug that they actually believe unless they are experiencing increased dosages, they will die. Hence the continued escalating use without regard to anything or anyone else. (ironically the effort to satisfy their escalating perceived/physiologic needs leads to their demise). Why this situation is continually played out by supposedly, smart talented wealthy individuals may be rooted in some deep seeded self loathing or fear of rejection.

          • Eventually I just got tired of people trying to psychoanalyze and try to explain heroin addicts in such complicated ways. They were smarter than the other addicts, but didn’t want to live. They then over-thought how to die. I felt like telling some of them, here, here are a bunch of pills. Take these and you’ll be dead in a few minutes. Don’t take them and you’ll take the first step toward making a choice to live. But they couldn’t figure that out. I guess I just get tired of the “woe is me” by them, and the “I feel so sorry for them” from everyone else. At the end of the day, with any alcohol or drug addiction, you decide if you want to live or die. I decided to live, and I don’t want any fanfare for doing it. A lot of them don’t. And I get tired of all that feel-good analysis by people who have no idea what they are talking about and all that fanfare for those who choose to die.

        • Kristian is a good, professional film critic. You’re just a post at the bottom of his story. Like little bird droppings he has pooped out, except he is too good to poop you out.

          • It’s nice to know that Kris’s intellectually challenged supporters enjoy this entry. (lol) (Yeah he’s such a great critic it took you half a week to read and comment on his column). (Hint:: you and the writer need to ask your third grade teacher if it is acceptable to use scatological references in public…)

      • I’ve seen most of his work and I have to admit, he was kind of a creepy guy. Did he EVER play an uncomplicated (not twisted) individual? Did he know how to? The wealthy nasty ugly American bullying character he played in “Talented Mr. Ripley” seemed so obnoxious, I was rooting for the character’s demise. I agree with Skeptic–like Belushi, he had his 15 minutes-let’s move on.

    • Some of the journalists who are so sympathetic to these actors with drug problems, have had addiction problems themselves—too close to home,I guess.

  3. Austrian Swiss actor and pianist Maximilian Schell, brother of actress Maria Schell passed on last week as well,was an excellent actor and was featured in a televised Beethoven biography some years ago which was excellent.