I just saw Philip Seymour Hoffman last week, at a Q&A after the Sundance premiere of John Slattery’s feature directing debut God’s Pocket, in which Hoffman plays a low-level Philadelphia mobster trying to raise money for his son’s funeral. (It was one of two new films Hoffman was at the festival to promote; in the other, an adaptation of John le Carré’s A Most Wanted Man, he plays a German spy on the trail of a suspected terrorist.) Hoffman came up on stage with the director and some fellow cast members, looking hale and hearty, and answered the audience’s questions not only cogently but warmly and humorously, with affectionate asides to Slattery and his co-stars (who included Christina Hendricks and John Turturro). He was standing right there just a second ago, in body and spirit and a goofy-looking pair of parachute pants, and now he’s gone.
I mention this only to convey the intensity of my sense—of everyone’s, I think—that Philip Seymour Hoffman died when he was right in the middle of something, or of a lot of things, all subsumed under the work in progress called “life.” At 46, he was both one of the most accomplished working actors in America and one of the busiest. He had reached a kind of sun-dappled meadow in his professional life, a place where he was powerful enough to take on any role he chose—an arms-trading supervillain in Mission: Impossible III, an enigmatic cult leader in The Master, a maniacal theater director in Synecdoche, New York, a working-class thug in God’s Pocket—and in sufficient control of his gifts to bring something unexpected and beautiful to every one. In the past few years, he had begun to direct films as well as act in them (his debut was 2010’s Jack Goes Boating, in which he also starred) while continuing to work extensively as a stage actor and director, both on Broadway and, for many years, as the artistic director of the Labyrinth Theater Company, which he co-founded. Hoffman also recently directed stage productions in Chicago and Sydney, and had just signed on for a lead role in an upcoming Showtime series. If you walked around New York’s West Village with any regularity, you could be sure to see him riding a bike down Bleecker Street.
So there’s the fact that an active, omnipresent actor like Hoffman is somehow suddenly as absent as a person can get—and then, before we can even start to get our minds around that, there’s the matter of how he left. This vibrant, wildly gifted performer, a father to three young children with his longtime partner and creative collaborator Mimi O’Donnell, losing his life alone on the floor of a Manhattan bathroom with a needle in his arm—it’s an image the mind skitters away from, as if in an attempt to convince us it’s only a scene from one of his movies (in which he would, naturally, have been superb). If Philip Seymour Hoffman can die of an overdose, then anyone can. If his death doesn’t serve as a wakeup call for “high-functioning” addicts, then nothing will (and as we keep painfully learning over and over again, sometimes nothing does).
When Hoffman was in a movie, you knew there would be at least one thing to recommend it—usually more than one, because he tended to choose oddball, interesting projects and, when they were less than perfect, to elevate them with the commitment and craft his presence always ensured. He could turn a small part in a dumb movie into a Bonsai-scale character portrait (cf. the gonzo weather nerd he played in 1996’s Twister, a ridiculous action thriller that I secretly adore, in large part because of the glee with which PSH sells its demented tornado-chasing premise). When he had a small part in a good movie, like the lovelorn, closeted, painfully needy Scotty in Boogie Nights, you left the theater remembering him as one of the film’s key players no matter how many lines his character had. And when he got a crack at a great leading role—Willy Loman, Truman Capote, the Master—he could turn in a performance so definitive, so nuanced and mysterious, that it was a struggle to imagine the part ever belonging to anyone else.
He could be equally plausible as an exemplar of Falstaffian bluster (The Master, Charlie Wilson’s War) or abject self-disgust (Synecdoche, New York, Boogie Nights.) He could minister to a dying old man with the tenderest care (Magnolia) or drip with icy homophobic contempt (The Talented Mr. Ripley). He could play the famously fey Truman Capote (Capote) without queening it up. His unusual actorly physiognomy—the ruddy, transparent skin, the bulky but far from graceless body, the beetling blond eyebrows—lent itself to all manner of physical and gestural shape-shifting. But he didn’t transform in the manner of, say, a Christian Bale, by slimming down, bulking up, donning prostheses and voice filters, becoming “unrecognizable.” Rather, he sculpted his characters from the pliant clay of the voice and body he already had, making himself lumbering and clumsy in one role, sinuous and self-contained in the next.
Accomplished as he already was, Hoffman’s career nonetheless had a distinct feeling of being nearer its beginning than its end—he was the opposite of an artist in decline. It’s easy to imagine him performing into his 80s, challenging himself and surprising us in ever-different ways as he grew older, playing Winston Churchill or Falstaff or Captain Ahab or King Lear, directing and producing both for the stage and the screen, mentoring younger actors. That we’ll never get a chance to watch that lifelong creative flowering makes me want to destroy a roomful of furniture with the cold, methodical rage Hoffman’s betrayed jewel thief displayed in Sidney Lumet’s final film, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. It’s a bravura moment that seems to cite the famous room-destruction scene in Citizen Kane, but with a performance that, in some ways, surpasses Welles’. For years to come—as long as I’m still around to watch movies, which right now feels like a very lucky position to be in—I’ll see other actors playing roles that should have belonged to Hoffman, and feel his loss anew.
I kept thinking, after hearing the news, about Owning Mahowny (2003), in which Hoffman played a gambling-addict bank manager who swindles vast quantities of cash from his workplace to fund his binges at the casino. His Dan Mahowny is a monomaniacal, borderline sociopathic user of other people, a charmless and joyless man rapidly circling the financial and ethical drain. But Hoffman plays him with a deep compassion and ruthless honesty that turns this modestly ambitious torn-from-the-headlines biopic into a lacerating study of the compulsion to self-destruct. Owning Mahowny is a movie I’ve recommended to many people over the decade since it came out, and one I think of often when confronted by the awful mystery of addiction. Why and how is it that so many people are willing to sacrifice their dearest treasure—their work, their gifts, their families, their precious remaining years on earth—for another dose of the poison that’s slowly (or, sometimes, suddenly) killing them? Knowing what we do now about Hoffman’s own struggles with addiction, and his final, terrible answer to that question, I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to watch Owning Mahowny again.
See more of Slate’s coverage of Philip Seymour Hoffman.