Philip Seymour Hoffman has died, apparently of a drug overdose, apparently of heroin, apparently in a New York City apartment bathroom, apparently aged 46. Over the last 22 or so of those he gifted the world dozens of gripping, versatile, note-perfect film performances.
From the manic, cultish psychological wilds of his lead turn in THE MASTER, to the electrifying passion, molting indignation, and unverifiable sense of innocence of Father Flynn in DOUBT, to the blood-freezing tension of his mormon entrapment gangster character in PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE, Hoffman seemed always to have tapped into some essential set of truths about the person he was inhabiting for the cameras. That talent leavened some otherwise-dreadful films too, saving THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY from itself and giving MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 3 a place in shoot-em-up history it never could’ve deserved without him.
Athletes have to worry about fast-twitch muscles, with winning and losing separated often by microseconds and fractional differences in some physics equation. If the essential talent of acting could be located in some similar property of the body, rather than the mind or soul, perhaps we’d have used the same kinds of words to describe Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Words like “freak” and “uncanny” and “unnatural.” He was an acting Bo Jackson, a three-sport athlete of the page, equally gripping in comedic turns like his preening secretary in THE BIG LEBOWSKI as in unremittingly tragic fare like BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD, just as capable of carrying such hard-to-categorize stuff as MAGNOLIA or LOVE LIZA as of nailing smaller ensemble contributions in STATE AND MAIN or BOOGIE NIGHTS or RED DRAGON or THE 25TH HOUR.
Whether squared off with fellow titans like Meryl Streep and Joaquin Phoenix or “slumming it” with your Ben Stillers and your Adam Sandlers, Hoffman always came correct and made movies better than they’d have been without him.
The quote above is from the opening sermon in DOUBT. “What do you do when you’re not sure?” Father Flynn asks at the top of that speech. The positive value of doubt is philosophically dear to me, and so Hoffman’s work as Flynn in the cinematic adaptation of that play will always be especially dear to me when I look back on his now-felled career.
You never had to doubt Philip Seymour Hoffman, though. He was a certainty for filmgoers. You need not know what was coming out in a given year to be able to put at least two stunning Hoffman performances on your calendar. In ink. Without knowing what the project would be or in what way his work would linger in your mind in the hours and weeks afterward, you could always count him reliable.
Plenty of folks are likely wondering what they’ll do without him, not least the director Paul Thomas Anderson who used him in every one of his films save for THERE WILL BE BLOOD. But atop that list are Hoffman’s three children, aged 10, 7, and 5. As with all brilliant artists laid low by substances, the talent and product are inextricable from the chemicals and the demons. The temptation to thunder impotently against this or that hypothetical culprit will pass long before the grief does, and what will ultimately remain is the work. Few humans can claim the sheer scope and quality of legacy that he could.