“The fog is where I wanted to be.”
– Eugene O’Neill, Long Day’s Journey Into Night
“Philip Seymour Hoffman, Actor of Depth, Dies at 46”
– The New York Times, February 2, 2014
There he is, standing in front of you. Pale blue eyes, strawberry blonde hair, soft features. He never wanted your recognition. He never sought it, but he got it anyway. If it was up to him, you wouldn’t know his name. But you do.
Philip Seymour Hoffman: a melodic, trochaic name, all three parts included in his professional moniker. It was said that “he would rather you remember the characters he’s played than remember him.” It was also said that he’s “perhaps the most ambitious and widely admired American actor of his generation.” His career spanned phases as a reliable character actor, an off-beat leading man, a powerful supporting presence, and everything in between. IMDb gives him 65 credits over twenty-something years; his accolades include an Oscar and three additional nods, not to mention three Tony nominations and one at the Emmys. He specialized in playing both sensitive misfits and charismatic leaders, and not even that covers the full extent of his range. Hoffman died twenty-one months ago, at the beginning of February 2014, and his final film, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2, was released in theaters this past weekend.
Here he is. He wanted to be the sum of the characters he played, and his sum is at its equal sign. The least we can do is take a step back and see what it all adds up to.
Philip Seymour Hoffman was born in Fairport, New York, on the 23rd of July, 1967. His parents split when he was nine. His father moved away, leaving the children in the custody of his mother, a civil rights activist who went to law school in an attempt to sustain and support her family. She got that degree and eventually worked her way up to judge. Years later, on-stage accepting an Academy Award for his performance as Truman Capote, Hoffman singled her out and thanked her: “Be proud, Mom, ‘cause I’m proud of you,” he beamed. “And we’re here tonight, and it’s so good.”
She took him to see plays–the first being All My Sons by Arthur Miller, a tragic drama about a family unable to heal itself from the sins of its past. Hoffman, twelve years old at the time, previously had no interest in theater. His size and strength meant he was better suited to wrestling and baseball. But the local production of All My Sons changed–“permanently changed,” he would later say–something within him. He came to a realization that would define his professional work ethic for the rest of his life. “It was like a miracle to me,” Hoffman said in 2008 of that production, “But that deep kind of love comes at a price: for me, acting is torturous, and it’s torturous because you know it’s a beautiful thing. I was young once, and I said, ‘That’s beautiful and I want that.’ Wanting it is easy, but trying to be great—well, that’s absolutely torturous.”
He was converted, but not committed. Every so often for the next few years, he accompanied his mother to the theater after wrestling practice–not an actor, but not necessarily an athlete either. Eventually, fate made the decision for him. At age 14, he injured his neck while wrestling and was stuck in a brace. With all contact sports off the table, young Hoffman found himself lost and insecure. As he explained it, “I’d see some girl from 10 blocks away, and I’d take [the neck-brace] off until she passed me. I was this freckle-faced kid, and I perceived myself as not attractive.” One specific girl the teenage Romantic had his eye on was involved in theater, and auditions for the next school play were coming up. Not feeling at home with athletics anymore–and egged on by his mom–Hoffman took the leap and signed up for an audition slot, trying his hand for the first time in the craft he had long admired.
And he stayed. He wasn’t a star overnight, starting out with bit roles in department productions, putting in his time, honing his craft. Slowly but surely, he grew more serious about it. In the summer before his senior year, he auditioned for the prestigious New York State Summer School of the Arts in Saratoga Springs and was selected to attend. There, he met Bennett Miller and Dan Futterman, who, years later, would be the respective director and writer of Capote, the film for which their buddy Phil Hoffman would win an Oscar.
That would all come. But, for now, in the summer of 1984, they were three young aspiring artists, growing closer every day and conjuring up big plans for the future. Hoffman had the biggest dreams of the three. If identity is a jigsaw puzzle, theater, for him, had become the piece that makes all the others snap into place. He was coming into his own, as an artist and a personality, and his peers were starting to take notice. “It wasn’t really because he was a social animal,” Miller later said, “We were attracted to the fact that he was genuinely serious about what he was doing. Even then, he was passionate. Hoffman drank a lot of beer, and he could tell a story and light up a room. You wanted to be around him.” He regaled his friends with his plans to move to Manhattan, to spend his days rehearsing plays and his nights gathering with pals in the now-defunct bar The Blue Room.
That was the vision. That was his future.
Returning from his summer in Saratoga Springs, Hoffman was thrilled to learn that his drama cohort’s production of M.A.S.H. the previous year–he played Radar–was so good that the school’s theater director had decided they could handle Death of a Salesman, another of Arthur Miller’s great American tragedies. It was his chance. He gunned for–and got–the role of Willy Loman. At the age of 17, he played one of American theatre’s toughest parts. And how did he do?
He got a standing ovation. It wouldn’t be his last time playing the character.
After high school came college. Hoffman chose New York University. He studied–what else?–drama. There he was, living the life he had dreamed of–he had made it to Manhattan, and was spending his days doing theater, even founding with his friends an experimental theater group called the Bullstoi Ensemble. But his evening alcoholic soirees had taken on a different form. They didn’t involve The Blue Room, and they didn’t always just involve alcohol. There’s no way around it: he partied. Hard. Hoffman only spoke on this period of his life in-depth once, in an interview for 60 Minutes from 2006. “It was all that stuff,” he said to interviewer Steve Kroft, asked if his vice was alcohol or drugs.
“It was anything I could get my hands on,” he continued. “Yeah. I liked it all.”
He had garnered a reputation over the years from his friends and classmates of pouring himself 100% into everything he was passionate about. It’s not too hard to believe–this is a guy who fell in love with the “torturous” elements of acting when he was twelve. He backed up the notion himself later in life, in an interview he gave in 2013: “There is no pleasure that I haven’t actually made myself sick on.” When Hoffman checked himself into rehab shortly after graduating from college, those who knew his reputation tended not to be surprised. He was nothing if not self-aware. He could see there was a problem.
“I was 22 years old and I got panicked for my life,” he said in the 2006 interview with 60 Minutes. “It made me worried if I was going to get to do the kind of things I wanted to do in my life.” That stint in rehab held for over two decades; he didn’t so much as have a drink.
He moved to Brooklyn. He slept on a mattress in a studio apartment, and bummed around odd jobs for a few years. He was restless. He got fired as a waiter, then again as a lifeguard in a spa. He auditioned when he could, landing his first gig in a small role on Law & Order when he was 23. He also auditioned for theater around New York City–“Off-off-off-Broadway,” he called it–but, pudgy and messy-haired, doors closed in his face one by one. Finally, he secured a job in the prepared meats section of a deli.
At around this time, late in 1991, he went in for an audition for a small supporting role in an upcoming film called Scent of a Woman. Then he was called in again. And again. And again. And again.
Call it luck, call it fate–he called it a breakthrough. When he got the part, it just seemed to make sense. He was 24 years old, and he was in a movie with Al Pacino. Of course, landing the part was only half of the equation. Scent of a Woman ended up being a big hit–a smash at the box office, a juggernaut in awards season. Hoffman never wanted a film career, but that seemed to be what was out on the horizon. He quit his job at the deli and moved out to Los Angeles.
His role in Scent of a Woman–as Chris O’Donnell’s prep school buddy turned antagonist–wasn’t big or showy on paper, but he was already starting to gather a following.
“That’s when I first noticed Phil,” the late Mike Nichols, who became one of Hoffman’s closest collaborators, said. “He summed up all the ways those boarding-school bullies were scary. There is something deeply ethical about Phil as an actor that was apparent even then — he has the integrity and commitment to represent his characters without any judgment.”
L.A. proved productive for Hoffman, if not akin to floodgates opening, as he gradually built up his film resumé with tiny roles in both independent and studio productions. He played John Cusack’s wealthy friend in Money for Nothing. He got punched by Paul Newman in Nobody’s Fool. But something clearly wasn’t working, because, by 1995, he had moved back to New York. The exact reason why isn’t well-documented, but it more likely than not has to do with a simple fact: he hadn’t appeared in a single play since graduating from college. And the way things were going in L.A., with all efforts being almost oppressively focused on his film career, that wasn’t likely to change. Theater was his first love, and a career without it wasn’t enough, so he left. (Notably, when Hoffman listed in his will the cities he desired his children to live in and/or visit after his death, he conspicuously left out Los Angeles. The Hollywood lifestyle never meshed with him.)
In 1995, back in Manhattan, he quickly joined the LAByrinth Theater Company, a young, urban, multi-cultural collective of artists that performed new shows in both established theatres and abandoned office buildings. It was no doubt a selective move, as LAByrinth was producing just the kind of plays Hoffman was interested in: the ones that explore the parts of ourselves that we avoid thinking about in everyday life, the ones that bare all on stage. As the L.A. Times described it: “their ensemble work was designed to cold-cock an audience.”
Hoffman became an uber-committed member for the rest of his life. He acted in and directed countless productions over the years, and even found time to be artistic director during his ascent in the film world. It was through his association with LAByrinth that Hoffman first made a name for himself in the New York theater scene–eventually cemented with a production of Caryl Churchill’s The Striker at The Public Theatre in early 1996–and he could have easily made a career doing just that.
But Hoffman had made another fan with Scent of a Woman–a young screenwriter-director named Paul Thomas Anderson. Anderson was getting ready to launch his first feature-length film–a crime thriller called Sydney (later retitled Hard Eight), and he had written a small part for the actor he’d long admired. Turns out Hoffman, who had seen Anderson’s short film Coffee and Cigarettes at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival, felt the same way.
One weekend in the summer of 1995, Hoffman flew to Reno, Nevada to film his one night on the project. Independent productions aren’t known for their reasonable shooting hours, and this one was no exception; at two in the morning, Hoffman made his way to the loud, bright casino–still loud and still bright at this hour–where filming was taking place. Amidst the blaring slot machines and active poker games, Hoffman shook hands with Paul Thomas Anderson and they met for the first time.
The scene to film was a simple one: Hoffman was a cocky craps player, railing on and taunting our quiet, stoic main character, until things quickly go south. The cast and crew waited around. It was the last set-up of the night; they needed to get the scene in the can to get home to bed. But Hoffman and Anderson had started chatting, and they didn’t stop. What they talked about, no one but them could know, but it was obvious to anyone watching: something had clicked. Not only would their careers intertwine and define each other for years to come–they also became great friends.
Hard Eight didn’t end up getting released until February 1997, and Hoffman, in the meantime, continued to balance his two burgeoning careers. In a radical change of pace, he landed a role in the blockbuster adventure film Twister, as the goofy stoner sidekick to Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt’s stormchaser duo. (It was almost certainly the biggest paycheck he had ever received at that point.) He stole the movie in an almost-literally disposable role, to such an extent that when People Magazine later polled Facebook and Twitter users, it was the role that the public overwhelmingly associated him with.
By the time Hard Eight was finally released, Paul Thomas Anderson had put together funding for his follow-up, a kaleidoscopic tour through the 1970s porn industry, called Boogie Nights. Once again, he had written a role for his new friend Phil Hoffman. While Hoffman’s role in Hard Eight was a cameo and in line with the loud and obnoxious bullies that he had played on screen at the point in his career, the role Anderson gave him in Boogie Nights was more substantial, and allowed him the opportunity to show off the range that anyone who saw him on stage knew he had. His role as Scotty J, a painfully shy boom operator hopelessly in love with porn star Dirk Diggler, was the first great one of his film career; the scene where he finally confesses his love is hilarious, brutal, and one of the unforgettable highlights of an incredible movie.
Riding the wave of momentum from the success of Twister and Boogie Nights, it quickly became clear that Hoffman had essentially become the go-to guy for a certain niche of unbecoming roles in Hollywood. In 1998 alone, he played a hilariously weaselly butler in the Coen Brothers’ cult classic The Big Lebowski, a thoroughly unlikable and whiny medical student opposite Robin Williams in Patch Adams, and a schlubby chronic masturbator in the dark comedy Happiness. (It’s worth mentioning that he also did two more movies and a play at the Public Theater in that year.) None of these roles are particularly flattering, but Hoffman gravitated towards them, in the hopes of somehow, someway, finding redemption in their quirks and taboos.
When asked about this trend later in his career, Hoffman responded with a characteristic amount of self-aware compassion: “Well, I think everyone struggles with self-love. I think that’s pretty much the human condition, you know, waking up and trying to live your day in a way that you can go to sleep and feel OK about yourself.”
He continued: “When I was younger I wanted to really show what it meant to have such doubt about yourself, such fear… I had insecurities and fears like everybody does, and I got over it. But I was interested in the parts of me that struggled with those things.”
He continued this exploration over the following two years, with roles and projects as varied and fascinating as they ever were. He returned to the “preppy bully” archetype that launched his career in Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. Anderson, once again, wrote him a role in his next film, Magnolia, this one a sensitive and loving male nurse. He got his largest screen role yet as drag queen Rusty Zimmerman opposite Robert De Niro in a misguided but worth-seeing-for-Hoffman flick called Flawless.
His exploration reached its peak when he took a tiny role as rock critic Lester Bangs in Almost Famous. Despite the size of the part, Hoffman seemed to connect to something about it. He filmed his scenes in three days while getting over the flu, and didn’t talk to anyone in-between takes, opting to walk around with headphones over his ears playing interviews given by the real Bangs. For the now-famous “uncool” scene, director Cameron Crowe envisioned a rallying call to arms; Hoffman had a different idea. He took the text on the page (“The only true currency in this bankrupt world if what we share with someone else when we’re uncool.”) and turned it into a quiet confession, a haunting moment of sympathy that could be offered to every character he had played over the past decade. As Crowe later wrote, “It became the soul of the movie. … Suddenly the portrait was complete.”
Throughout it all, he continued to return to theater. In 1999, he directed a play at LAByrinth called In Arabia We’d All Be Kings, which he worked on with costume designer Mimi O’Donnell. Shortly afterwards, they began dating. The following year, Hoffman and fellow-Paul Thomas Anderson favorite John C. Reilly made their Broadway debuts in Sam Shepard’s True West–playing the roles of two self-destructive brothers, they alternated characters every couple performances. They performed the show 154 times in three months, and both received Tony nominations. The following year, Hoffman appeared in a highly publicized production of The Seagull with Meryl Streep, Natalie Portman, Christopher Walken, and John Goodman, directed by Mike Nichols.
It was around this point that Hoffman’s career started to shift. In a stable relationship, and well-respected as an actor and director, he started to take risks. Amidst his typical supporting roles in thrillers (Red Dragon) and epics (Cold Mountain), he peppered in his first straight comedy, as Ben Stiller’s self-obsessed friend in Along Came Polly. He played his first leading role, a man reeling in the wake of his wife’s suicide, in Love Liza (made for a paltry $1 million, and written by his brother Gordon). Just three years after performing in dramatic acrobatics with True West, he returned to Broadway with an equally tough follow-up–the role of Jamie Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, famously one of the most exhausting plays to perform.
People noticed Hoffman’s intense commitment to challenging himself as an artist, in the same manner people had noticed his intense commitment to giving 100% to everything he was passionate about. After all, acting was “torturous” to the man. But there was a marked difference between acting for film and acting for theater. As Hoffman said, “The movies are great, but they require a different kind of concentration, and then they’re over. Theater was my first love… it’s why I got into acting.”
At the same time, “The theater was very difficult for him,” Robert Falls, the director of that production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, said. “It cost him; there was an emotional cost to the work, having to do it for eight performances a week, and having to rehearse. In Long Day’s Journey, a role about an addict who would be dead in a number of years, who was filled with self-loathing, certainly Phil had access to those emotions.”
It became clear that acting for Philip Seymour Hoffman was not channelling some outside force. It was baring what was already inside him. For the roles he played, that meant grappling with his demons.
Yet, during the year he did Long Day’s Journey Into Night (and got another Tony nomination for his work), he became a father. O’Donnell gave birth to a son, Cooper. The couple would have two more children, two daughters, over the next five years.
He wanted to build a life as an artist. He had built a life as an artist.
But he had to keep himself busy. There was always another hurdle to jump. Around late 2004, he began to remind Bennett Miller, his childhood friend, of a specific celebrity icon: “Phil was where Truman Capote was in his life before he wrote ‘In Cold Blood,’” Miller later said. “He was respected by everyone, but he hadn’t fulfilled his true potential.” So Miller and Hoffman and their friend from Saratoga Springs Dan Futterman came together to remedy that, and attempt their most ambitious project yet. If 5’10”-tall, 230-pound, former athlete Philip Seymour Hoffman seemed an odd choice for short, skinny author Truman Capote, Miller would’ve told you that was exactly the point. “I knew that Hoffman, like Capote, had the charm, the ambition and the talent to both be great and self-destructive,” he said.
Playing Truman Capote in Capote was a departure from the roles Hoffman usually took on for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that he’s in practically every frame of the movie. Beyond that, the character was plagued with polarities that complicated the simple characteristics of a “typical” Philip Seymour Hoffman role. Capote was an outsider, yes, but he was also the life of any party he attended. He was a watcher, but also a crafter of fiction, and an intensely charismatic one at that. He wanted to be liked, but was willing to be ruthless and dishonest to be so. Like Hoffman himself, Capote was successful but didn’t feel successful enough, and was at a professional and personal crossroads when he wrote In Cold Blood. It was only appropriate for Hoffman, a man interested in the ways art imitates life, that Capote, the movie about the writing of In Cold Blood, would in many ways be his own In Cold Blood–the moment in an artist’s career that can be delegated to “before” and “after.”
Hoffman threw himself into the role. He lost weight. He researched for four and a half months, watching and reading and studying every bit of film of the man he could find. When it came time to finally roll camera in the bitterly cold Winnipeg (doubling as Kansas), Hoffman would stay in character all day, as a way to prevent his body from rejecting the way he was holding his posture or his vocal cords from rejecting the way he was speaking. Staying in character forced him to adopt some of Capote’s instabilities and insecurities, which, as he said, “wasn’t really good for my mental health.” He did it anyway, day after day for the duration of the shoot. On top of that, his newly-founded company, Cooperstown, was producing the movie, and money was always in danger of running out.
But the movie was completed, and released to great acclaim. It, and specifically its lead actor, sailed through awards season. Hoffman picked up almost every acting award known to man, and almost overnight, everything changed–for his career, if not for him personally. Sure, he had an Oscar, and now had enough of a seat at the table to get roles he wouldn’t have gotten otherwise, like the main villain in Mission: Impossible III, or to lead independent films that might not get financed without his clout, like The Savages.
At the same time, the work remained fundamentally the same. If anything, the more well-known he got, the more reserved he got, and the more focused he became on giving himself 100% to the craft. He wasn’t a recluse–he was a friendly and visible neighbor in his Greenwich Village community until his death–but he did start to focus more on his art than anything else. Around the time he was in awards season for Capote was when he gave some of his most revealing interviews which hint towards this trajectory.
In his 2006 interview with 60 Minutes, he talked about the power of acting being for the performer just as much as the audience: “If you can go to the theatre, and you’re in a room with a bunch of other people, and what’s happening in front of you is not happening, but you actually believe it is. If I can do that, I’ve done my job,” he said. “And that’s the thing — that is a drug. That’s a drug. That’s something you get addicted to.”
For him, what it took to get to that place–of being satisfied with his job–was the same thing that blew him away about the production of All My Sons all those years prior. It was struggle, it was torture. It was staying in character as Truman Capote until he began to take on the man’s unbalanced mind, even at the sake of his own mental health. It only follows that the more he created, the more that kind of psychic transplantation would weigh on him. So then why do it?
The answer might be in an interview he gave to Rolling Stone just a few weeks before 60 Minutes, who quote him as saying: “Life is only as good as the day you do your work well. … It’s as satisfied as you’ll get, you know what I mean?” Life and art weren’t separate entities, subsets of one another; they were one and the same, and being happy with one meant being happy with the other. And what that meant for Philip Seymour Hoffman was a daily, hourly struggle.
Harnessing this struggle by being hard on himself and on others was the logical progression of his work ethic–yet it was all in the name of the best final product possible. He was known to be a brutally honest presence at LAByrinth readings and productions, offering harsh but truthful criticism when the project wasn’t his and pacing around cursing himself when the project was his. On film sets he would carry around a pen and paper, making oblique and aggressive scribbles all over it, trying, desperately, to diagram the mind of his character. This wasn’t when a project was particularly challenging–this was every project.
This was the process.
And even as the work was honed in on, Hoffman himself was changing around it–not as a product of the attention, but as a simple product of getting older. He wasn’t finding the sad-sack roles that made his career appealing anymore. He began taking roles about characters in mid-life crises, characters who see their time running out, characters who respond by grabbing life by the throat. He began playing leaders, people with a plan, men in charge–playing them, of course, with his keen eye towards sympathy and psychological nuance.
He garnered his second Oscar nomination for playing gung-ho CIA agent Gust Akravatos in Mike Nichols’ Charlie Wilson’s War. He played a skeevy financial executive turned low-life criminal in Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. He embodied a brilliant campaign manager in The Ides of March, and an adulterous violinist in A Late Quartet. He led Charlie Kaufman’s emotionally exhausting avant-garde drama Synecdoche, New York, about a playwright whose latest production grows so large it encompasses his life several times over. As Hoffman told The Guardian, “These films are not so much about doubt, they are about attacking life with vigour, dealing with things at a different time of your life, when you don’t have much time, and what you’re going to do.”
Regret, loss, and power became common themes of his work in the late 2000s. He got his third Oscar nomination for Doubt, where he played a priest who may or may not have had inappropriate relations with a young boy–at the end, no one, not even his accuser, knows if he did it or not, leaving everyone’s assumptions in the balance. He reunited with his friend Bennett Miller for Moneyball, where he played the manager of the Oakland A’s, who has all the power over Brad Pitt’s Billy Beane, until he doesn’t. He received his fourth and final Oscar nomination for his fifth and final collaboration with Paul Thomas Anderson–The Master, where Hoffman plays an enigmatic and charismatic cult leader who seems to use power to mask some deep existential insecurities. It’s arguably the most accomplished performance of Hoffman’s screen career–engaging and vulnerable, funny and scary.
All of this seemed to come to a head in Hoffman’s return to Broadway in 2012–playing none other than Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, the role that won him his first standing ovation back in high school when was seventeen. Now he was forty-five, still nearly two decades short the sixty-two years Loman is described as in the text. But Hoffman was always more mature than his age suggested, and this was the next hurdle to jump. Under Mike Nichols’ direction, Hoffman transformed Loman into a monolithic everyman, larger than life but bogged down by the regrets and insecurities that plague us all. He got many more standing ovations; he was nominated for his third Tony. But, like True West and Long Day’s Journey Into Night, he had not made things easy on himself, and the size and scale of the production was starting to weigh on him. He had to break into tears on-stage nightly. He told his friends, including playwright David Bar Katz, that he dreaded “doing that to himself every night.” And when it was over, Katz said, “he said to me he wasn’t going to act in theater for a while.”
Philip Seymour Hoffman was able to find and communicate sympathy for the characters he played by virtue of the fact that–and precisely because–he brought their insecurities and instabilities to the forefront. But doing that day after day, year after year, didn’t come for free. In 2008, Hoffman talked about how he lost himself in the art to the extent that he always wanted to quit acting: “There’s part of me that feels that way during almost every movie,” he said. “On Synecdoche, I paid a price. I went to the office and punched my card in, and I thought about a lot of things, and some of them involved losing myself. You try to be artful for the film, but it’s hard.”
After Death of a Salesman closed, Hoffman began to tell friends that he felt 23 years of sobriety was long enough that he could risk drinking again “in moderation.” Not one to let exhaustion get in the way of his professional drive, he kept working. To most colleagues, he seemed as present as ever. But to those who truly knew him, it was clear something dark was brewing underneath.
He saw his friend Ethan Hawke in an off-Broadway production of Chekhov’s Ivanov. He came backstage raving and Hawke was struck. “Ivanov is about depression and the black hole you can fall into when depression descends,” Hawke said. “To be honest, it was a little upsetting how much that play affected him. He loved that play. It really spoke to him. He was not at his happiest.”
By the following spring, May of 2013, Hoffman was back in rehab. Tabloids reported that a reliance on prescription pills had caused a relapse of heroin use. His ten day stay fine-tuned his sobriety, but it didn’t last. At the end of 2013, he and his girlfriend of 14 years, Mimi O’Donnell, split up, and Hoffman moved to an apartment a few blocks away until he could get clean.
He didn’t stop working; if anything he was working as hard as he ever had. He was travelling almost every weekend to Atlanta to shoot his role in the upcoming Hunger Games sequels. He was pulling together his next directorial feature. He was preparing for a role in an upcoming Showtime series. He went to Sundance in January 2014 to promote two movies. He kept on being a father. He had barely any contact with the press, but eyewitness accounts during the following weeks imply a slow and steady decline from “he looks great” to “wow, he doesn’t look good at all.”
He was keeping himself busy.
It came to less of a halt than a screech. On February 1st, 2014, Hoffman had dinner with friends, withdrew $1200 from a nearby ATM in six $200 installments, and stopped responding to texts at around 11pm. The next morning, February 2nd, he didn’t pick up his kids. He always picked up his kids. He was discovered dead in his apartment shortly thereafter, a body lying in a den teeming with baggies of heroin and scrawl-filled diaries. In these diaries, he wrote about his long-time feelings of regret and shame, feelings that had defined many of his most-beloved characters. He wrote about his “demons.”
It was a final baring of the man’s soul.
That was the end of Philip Seymour Hoffman–artist, father, violinist, cult leader, stormchaser, boom operator, and so much more–at the hands of a relapse gone wrong. What does it all add up to? Sure, he had an addiction, but that can never define a life. The longer you examine the man, the easier it seems to look at the tenets of his work ethic–that art requires torture, and that it is okay to be content with never being content–and deem them fundamentally incompatible. But even that is too broad.
Following his death, much was made of an interview he did in 2013 with philosopher Simon Critchley, where he essentially admitted that he’s probably only happy when he’s with his kids, and that he doesn’t really know how to define the word. He doesn’t know what happiness is? Well, who does? The more telling quote from that interview that is often overlooked is when Hoffman’s talking about meditation: “Meditation is really coming right up to the lip of death and saying I’m here, and I’m scared. … Learning how to die is therefore learning how to live.”
Struggle begets beauty. That’s who Philip Seymour Hoffman was.
Art, at its best, is the greatest empathy-portal we have. Philip Seymour Hoffman would rather you remember the characters he’s played than remember him because he understood this, that our time on this planet is short and we spend a lot of it alone, but it doesn’t have to be that way. As he once said, “In 80 years, no one I’m seeing now will be alive. Hopefully, the art will remain.” He struggled for his art because he desperately believed it could soothe the pain–his pain–of what it meant to be human, and get us to a place of togetherness. Here he is again, talking to The Believer in 2004:
“If you read a great book, it’s a book that will always be. In time people will go, ‘Oh my God, people can create something amazing… Fuck, I can’t live my life and not be a part of something.’ You want to live your life and leave something behind.”
Every life is a story of leaving something behind. So let Philip Seymour Hoffman walk away. Look down, and see what he left. Inspect it. Study it. Start anywhere. Start with Synecdoche, New York. He’s sitting intently, watching a pastor sermonize, “Fuck everybody. Amen.” Start with Death of a Salesman. He’s accepting his first standing ovation, a high school kid with a future created during beer-coated nights in Saratoga Springs. His mother’s sitting in the front row, clapping the loudest of all. Start with Hard Eight. He’s 28 years old, about to steal a 101-minute movie with a three-minute scene, about to announce himself to the world. In a decade, he’ll have an Oscar. In two decades, he’ll have passed and we’ll be mourning his final film. But here, now, he stands at a craps table, tapping his dice against the mat. He throws back his mullet, eternally uncool. He says, “It’s just you and me, Big Time.” He tosses the dice and watches as they bounce across the green.
Photos courtesy of here, here, here, here, and here