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.