To Philip Seymour Hoffman, With Gratitude and Anger
I’ll admit to feeling it deeply. I’m angry at many aspects of his heartbreaking demise, but nothing about it—the toll drugs and alcohol take, of course, prominent among them—exceeds my anger over the Hoffman performances I’m now condemned to miss.
I’m being selfish, maybe even petty, I know, although I’ll mitigate that by saying I’m angry for all of us at what we now will never get to see and hear. One of the grandest roles he undoubtedly would have taken on, perhaps sooner rather than later, is King Lear. It’s among the most obvious he would have been offered and, it’s a safe bet, from many quarters.
My only consolation—and not much of one—is I can imagine him playing it. I can hear his voice and see him immersing himself in William Shakespeare’s inexorable scenes. I can imagine him taking it on as the obverse of his Willy Loman, which many worried he was too young to assume at 43, forgetting that when Lee J. Cobb originated the part, he was 39.
I can see the fury he’d muster in the opening scenes, which would have been the physical opposite of his weary, slope-shouldered Willy. I can see the baffled humility he would have brought to the scenes on the heath and his delivery at the end of Lear’s disillusioned “never never never never never.”
But if this is slim consolation—I can’t imagine the surprises he’d insert—it’s at least something. It’s easier to contemplate than what he would have done with roles we don’t even know might have come his way from plays or movie and television scripts still waiting in computers. Yes, we’ve been robbed of another 30, 40 years of Philip Seymour Hoffman being memorable in anything he chose to do.
And he was memorable on stage as well as on big and (from time to time) small screens as an actor who devoted himself to the theater, perhaps even in preference to the screen. There aren’t many actors like him—Al Pacino regularly, Dustin Hoffman occasionally. But Philip Seymour Hoffman distinguished himself especially. His last two stays are equally indelible—Jamie Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night (looking in profile as much like Brian Dennehy as any father-son match is likely to get) and Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman.
But Broadway was not his only beat. Some time ago he allied himself with the Labyrinth Theater Company as initially the first non-Latino member in an outfit dedicated to focusing attention on Latino actors. He simply liked the idea of the troupe when he learned about it from John Ortiz, with whom he was acting in a Chicago production.
Although I never met Hoffman, I interviewed him by telephone once—possibly twice; I’m not certain—about his commitment to the Labyrinth, where over several years he eventually became co-artistic director with Ortiz and where he began to direct—extremely well with Stephen Adly Guirgis’s works, Our Lady of 121st Street, among them—more than act. I was writing an article on the ensemble for The Village Voice, and he was friendly, forthcoming and unquestionably dedicated to the company mission. I can still hear his enthusiasm and genuine cheer.
Hoffman didn’t confine his Off-Broadway work to the Labyrinth, of course. He can be commended for throwing in his lot with Peter Sellars on an unconventional, to say the least, Othello at the Public. Hoffman played Iago with his usual conviction to pal Ortiz’s title character. It was a perfectly acceptable performance, not viewed by many and really of worth only to those who consider themselves—as I do—Hoffman completists.
But wait. Having just looked down his list of movies as recorded on IMDb, I may not be as much a completist as I thought. (Okay, I’ll catch up with that Hunger Game installment as an opportunity to see a Hoffman performance I haven’t yet viewed.)
Nevertheless, I’ve seen the great performances. On the other hand, weren’t they all outstanding in their way? All different, all immaculately conceived and executed, all brimming with nuance and, as now we’ve come to suspect, possibly informed by the demons he battled? Yes, they were—and some of them completely overlooked in many of the obits and subsequent appreciations.
Maybe someone mentioned his uncompromising performance as the drag queen Rusty in Flawless opposite Robert De Niro, but I didn’t find it. Nor to my knowledge did anyone note that in a time when straight actors didn’t leap at the chance to play gay men, Hoffman took on at least three assignments—the other two in Boogie Nights and his Oscar-winning Capote as Truman Capote.
So if I’m/we’re missing out on the parts Hoffman never got to take on, we always have the parts he did. (Check the Theater on Film and Tape Archive of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts for the stage appearances.) We all have our favorites. Mine? Andy in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, the snotty prep school bully George Willis, Jr. in Scent of a Woman, the cruelly suave Lancaster Dodd in The Master, conflicted Father Brendan Flynn in Doubt and Capote in Capote.
If I had to choose one among them, though, I think it would be his Freddie Miles in The Talented Mr. Ripley. It’s strictly a personal choice, because Miles is the limp-wristed but heterosexual student whose self-involved privilege radiates from him like sunbeams on a Tiepolo ceiling. Hoffman’s portrayal is astounding—like so many of his portrayals. How he, whose background didn’t coincide with the one Miles could boast, knew the fellow inside and out is baffling, but he did. When I watched him at work, I saw him represent dozens of similar lads with whom I’d shared space at what are often called “the good schools.”
In the rush to mourn Hoffman, many eulogists have called him “the best actor of his generation.” Was he? What about Jeff Bridges, if he can be considered a member of the same generation? What about the mercurial Joaquin Phoenix? What about Matthew McConaughey these days?
Does the superlative even matter? What’s incontrovertible is that he’s one of the best. He’s an actor with whom many of the best directors we have wanted to work. (Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is Sidney Lumet’s last film.) And now as lovers of the acting and directing art and craft we don’t have Hoffman anymore.
David Finkle writes regularly about the arts.