Film acting may be the most mysterious of the arts. A film script is shorter than a stage play, but it leaves more for the actor to sketch in, because devices like stage direction and soliloquy are largely unavailable. Every choice therefore bears added weight. At the same time, the large screen, which records every facial twitch for posterity, compels an economy of gesture. What the actor must do, at a minimum—and this is merely where the mystery begins—is “get through the screen.” Beauty and talent aside, some actors can hold our attention. Those who cannot pass this first decisive test don’t get cast.
Even the most resourceful critics struggle to say why one performance leaves a lasting impression while another fades. It’s not that there aren’t enough English adjectives, but rather that adjectives often seem like the wrong tools. Imagine describing to a friend the pathos Marlon Brando evokes as a washed-up boxer in On the Waterfront, or what Paul Newman does with his alcoholic lawyer in The Verdict. No words quite substitute for the experience of watching a great actor in full flight.
Eight and a half years have passed since the February 2014 death of Philip Seymour Hoffman of a heroin overdose at age 46. Hoffman’s absence still provokes sadness. He was not quite a movie star; he was something much better. Only in retrospect has the scale of his ambition become clear. One role at a time, he was trying to take on the whole of our collective experience, to get inside the loneliness, the self-loathing, and the desperation—above all, the desperation—of life in a nation poking at its own psychic wounds.
Hoffman’s most durable role was probably in Capote, for which he won an Academy Award in 2005. He portrayed writer Truman Capote during a pivotal period in Capote’s career—as he researched and composed his greatest book, the true-crime story In Cold Blood. The book both made Capote’s reputation and drained him emotionally, beginning the moral and physical collapse that ended in his premature death. Totally lacking in physical vanity, Hoffman made himself smaller, raised his voice several octaves, mastered Capote’s distinctive gestures. It was a triumph not merely of technique but of understanding. Hoffman played Capote as a man both exquisitely self-possessed and entirely captive to his own ambition. Hoffman could underline Capote’s self-deceptions in his pursuit of the truth about the murders of the Clutter family because he understood the artistic stakes the writer was playing for.
Contrast Capote with Hoffman’s performance in Sidney Lumet’s 2007 crime thriller Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead. As he is delicate in Capote, here he is bullying and brutal. His Andy, an inept criminal and a worse son and brother, is hateful and cruelly manipulative. He brings ruin and death to the people around him. But Hoffman connects us to Andy’s need, just as he connected us to Capote’s, and when Andy breaks open in a pivotal scene, we see the unloved little boy he once was. As his plan unravels, Andy commits terrible violence, but he never quite loses our sympathy.
Hoffman was interested in male sexual frustration and dysfunction. In Happiness, he played a proto-incel, a man who feels an overwhelming need to express himself sexually but has no way to connect. His Jacob in 25th Hour and Scotty J. in Boogie Nights are rendered almost mute by obsession. These men have pornography at their fingertips, but sexual intimacy is on the other side of the moon. His Lester Bangs in Almost Famous delivers an aria for the uncool, telling a journalistic protégé that “women will always be a problem for guys like us.” In Doubt, Hoffman invites the audience to consider that his Father Flynn, a man of intelligence and wit—a man who truly cares for children—might also be a predator.
In a nation increasingly defined by its addictions, Hoffman himself was an addict. He was dependent at various times on alcohol and heroin, and more loosely, on food and cigarettes (“anything by mouth,” he joked). He played addicts time and again. Capote’s life was destroyed by alcohol. Hoffman’s grieving widower in Love Liza sniffs gasoline. Of course, anyone can play a crazed dope fiend, as Frank Sinatra did to dubious effect (and an Academy Award nomination) in The Man With The Golden Arm. Hoffman merged the addictions of his characters into their broader psychology, their peculiar sense of what was missing and what they were owed. An actor must be specific, and no one was more specific about suffering than Hoffman.
Hoffman’s consuming career and early death invite the cliché of the suffering artist. He would have rejected this idea as the kind of lazy first thought he worked to get past in his roles. Heroin killed Hoffman, just as heroin and other opioids will kill 50,000 Americans this year who are not as gifted or driven as he was. It would be speciously romantic, then, to say that fame or self-imposed pressure was what led to his death.
But did the emotional risks Hoffman took for his work contribute to his early death? The only sensible answer is yes. The intensity of his performances, especially his theatrical runs as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman and James Tyrone, Jr. in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, threatened his emotional equilibrium. John Le Carré, who met Hoffman on the set of A Most Wanted Man, wrote that “Philip took vivid stock of everything, all the time. It was painful and exhausting work, and probably in the end his undoing.” Ethan Hawke worked with Hoffman in Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead; he told Charlie Rose, “it didn’t come for free.” Hoffman used whatever he needed to get himself to the stage or set every day. (Holding the audience in the palm of your hand—he spoke of that as an addiction, too.) When a performer of rare talent and creative drive dies early, we feel guilt, because we know that on some level they were doing it for us.
At the moment, American movies are growing commercially, but the creative path ahead is less promising. The adult-themed, midsize films in which Hoffman made his name were dying even as his career began; most probably would not even be made today. The blockbusters and sequels that fit the new global distribution model feature characters whose motives are transparent and whose emotions pass through them one at a time, like boats in a parade flotilla. For this, you don’t need someone like Hoffman, except maybe to lend an air of legitimacy to a dubious enterprise, as Hoffman did for the 2007 Tom Cruise vehicle Mission: Impossible III. American movies now exist in an eternal present, outside of any particular language or culture. They do us no credit. Philip Seymour Hoffman left behind a dozen remarkable performances. His admirers remember him as the best of an art form that fascinates us, frustrates us, and occasionally moves us beyond words.
Photo by Amanda Edwards/Getty Images