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RIP Philip Seymour Hoffman, 1967–2014

RIP Philip Seymour Hoffman, 1967–2014

Philip Seymour Hoffman lived very close to us, in Manhattan. He was very visible in the neighborhood, riding his (old) bike,
walking with his children, or sitting at a café, either murmuring to a
companion while simultaneously filling a room or looking out from a table,
alone, as if he belonged in that spot. I would always do an inner double take
when I saw him in person. The first take would be to marvel at how relaxed he
seemed, how comfortable in his skin, what a man-of-the-people mood he seemed to
have about him. And the second take would be to think, my god, I just walked
past one of the most intense, malleable, transformable American actors alive
today, and I didn’t have to seek him out, didn’t have to stalk him: he was
right in front of me. And as I watched more and more of his films, and simultaneously
had the experience of passing him on the street, it occurred to me that the
quality I was identifying as relaxedness might in fact be readiness: readiness to launch
himself into a role, a situation, a life choice that would be dynamic,
shocking, not pleasant to watch unfolding, but memorable, all the same, if
memorable is an adequate word to use for his performances.

When great actors die as Hoffman did, revealing staggering
addictions, or psyches run ragged because some unspecified demon is chasing
them, the question always becomes: did the role become the person, or did the
person become the role, or both? When Heath Ledger died similarly, Jack
Nicholson was quoted as saying, “I warned him,” about the Ambien use that resulted from playing the Joker
in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight—one must assume that playing the same
character in Tim Burton’s version of the story did a number on Nicholson as well. We
could speculate a long time about to what extent actors can be said to “choose”
their roles, but we can say, with some certainty, that if you’re validated by
your work, then the roles you play begin to form a house you inhabit, shaped to
your specifications. Hoffman’s turn as Freddie Miles in The Talented Mr. Ripley, his soft tones evidence of a poisonous mix
of wealth and reckless immorality, would form one beam of the house; his
plaintive turn as Scotty J. in Boogie Nights, kissing up with futility to the
cuter and better-equipped Dirk Diggler, would form another beam; the
personification of sensitivity, intelligence, insidiousness, and self-absorption that was his
performance of the title role in Capote
would form another beam; his grand but pitiful presence in The Master would form another; and on it goes. The roles he played had in common a
sense of uncomfortable intensity, as if there were an oblong, burning form
lodged somewhere inside him that he bore patiently, but not without unhappiness
that drove everything he did—even at his most relaxed moments on screen, he seemed badly
in need of psychic fresh air.

And that’s why we watched Hoffman. And that’s why, with each
film, our expectations of him grew. America’s love of its stars and its
celebrities is very closely linked to its culture of expectation. From the
smallest arenas to the largest, we have expectations. We want our children to
over-perform, to impress us; we want each other to constantly succeed, to
constantly out-do, over-achieve; and we want our celebrities to be, in a sense,
like gods. We don’t want them to grow old. We don’t want them to stumble from
grace. And, most of all, we don’t want them to be human. And so, when an actor
like Hoffman, possessed of such a great talent along with the inner complexity necessary
to display that talent to its fullest, reveals himself, at the latest count, to have had at
least eight empty bags of heroin in his apartment at time of death, we’re
stunned, and shocked, and we remark on the great tragedy of the moment, and
we’re correct to do so. It is tragic. But the significance of such an event
should also be to remind us that we’re all human beings, and that part of our
expectation, of our celebrities and ourselves, is that we will be just this: beautiful and imperfect, imperfect and beautiful, two qualities which will strive against each other so valiantly that you might mistakenly think one quality might be victorious.

Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.

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