The Wall Street Journal and several other publications are reporting that Philip Seymour Hoffman, the Oscar-winning star of Capote and The Master, has been found dead in his Greenwich Village apartment. Law enforcement officers have revealed that the actor, who was 46, had a needle in his arm; the cause of death is suspected to be an overdose of heroin. Though clean for more than 20 years, Hoffman fell off the wagon about a year ago, checking himself into rehab for substance abuse. His body was found after a friend, unable to contact him, called the police.
Never the most conventional of leading men, Hoffman achieved stardom through the sheer force of his on-screen personality, an intensity of neurotic emotion he brought to comedies and dramas alike. He could scream with the best of them, bellowing high-volume obscenities in films like Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, Charlie Wilson’s War, and 2012’s The Master, in which his character memorably added the insult “Pig Fuck” to the cinematic lexicon. Hoffman could be an imposing presence, using his hulking frame as a tool of intimidation, but he could shrink into himself, too. For all the scoundrels and oddballs he played over the years, the actor was also capable of summoning an infectious warmth, as when he played rock journalist and mentor figure Lester Bangs in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous.
Born in Fairport, New York, to a Protestant executive and a Catholic lawyer, Hoffman began acting in high school. Receiving his BFA in drama from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, he cofounded the school’s Bullstoi Ensemble with director Bennett Miller, who would later direct him in Capote. Hoffman’s big break arrived in 1991, when he scored a guest spot on Law & Order. Soon he was making small but memorable appearances in Hollywood movies—playing a slimy prep-schooler in Scent Of A Woman (1992), getting punched in the face by Paul Newman in Nobody’s Fool (1994), and chasing tornadoes as “Dusty” in Twister (1996). For years, he was the epitome of a great character actor, the kind you might recognize (and be delighted by) but whose name might escape you.
That changed in 1998, when Hoffman’s visibility dramatically increased with appearances in a whopping six movies. The most notable of these performances was probably his turn in Todd Solondz’s controversial comedy Happiness, which cast the actor as a compulsive masturbator who makes obscene phone calls to strangers. His work here—funny, shocking, ultimately quite sad—revealed a talent for bringing out the bruised humanity in losers and screw-ups. The actor’s filmography is dotted with characters unable to control their desires: the miscalculating math teacher of 25th Hour, the hounded priest of Doubt, the hilariously smitten boom operator of Boogie Nights. His gift lay in his ability to make these flawed figures not just compelling, but also sympathetic. He excelled, too, at playing addicts, in films like Owning Mahowny and Love Liza (written by his brother, Gordy). Given the circumstances of his death, these performances gain a retroactive melancholy.
In 2007, Hoffman won his first and only Oscar for his lead performance in Capote, as the famous In Cold Blood author Truman Capote. His work in the film goes beyond mere mimicry; though he impersonates, with some success, Capote’s voice and mannerisms, Hoffman is after something closer to embodiment as critique, revealing the uncaring, predatory nature of the writer’s journalism. Certainly, his Capote is more dominant, more bullying, than the celebrity gadfly of reputation.
The Oscar win ushered Hoffman onto the A-list; he’d score three more nominations, for his supporting work in Charlie Wilson’s War, Doubt, and The Master. The award also opened the door to big-budget Hollywood work: Though beloved mainly for his turns in American independent cinema, Hoffman was a welcome presence in blockbusters, too. He brings a scary, sociopathic arrogance to the Bond villain part in Mission: Impossible III, accomplishing the Hannibal Lector-like feat of seeming most scary when “safely” in custody. Last year, Hoffman popped up in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, playfully enlivening what could have been a thankless part. (His character, Plutarch Heavensbee, plays a role in the two-part final installment of The Hunger Games, which is currently in production. It’s unknown whether the actor completed his scenes before he died.)
Capote also proved that while Hoffman was a tremendous supporting player, adept at injecting eccentric personality into the margins of a movie, he was also more than qualified to carry a picture, too. His greatest performance may be his work as the chronically unhappy playwright of Synecdoche, New York, Charlie Kaufman’s surrealistic portrait of creative and romantic discontent. Hoffman finds something funny and relatable, something revealingly human, in the deep existential funk Kaufman hangs around his neck. Perhaps he drew on his own theater experience, which runs the entire length of his career. Since joining the LAByrinth Theater Company in 1995, Hoffman earned numerous accolades for his stage work, garnering nominations as both director and actor. Most recently, he picked up a Tony nod for his portrayal of Willy Loman in Death Of A Salesman on Broadway.
In 2010, Hoffman made his feature directorial debut with Jack Goes Boating, reprising a role he originated on stage. The movie showed promise, hinting that he had learned something about filmmaking from the many major directors with which he had worked—an elite group that includes Sidney Lumet, the Coen brothers, Spike Lee, Anthony Minghella, and David Mamet. Perhaps his most rewarding creative relationship was the one he shared with director Paul Thomas Anderson, who cast the actor in five out of his six features, including the early Hard Eight. In Hoffman, Anderson saw a volcanic reservoir of feeling; films like Punch Drunk Love—in which he plays the boorish “Mattress Man” to Adam Sandler’s frustrated romantic—unleash that hotspring of emotion. And with The Master, Anderson coaxed new levels of intensity out of his regular collaborator, while also allowing him to reveal a buried insecurity beneath the braggadocio of his character, cult-leader Lancaster Dodd. It’s sad to think what the duo might have accomplished next.
This January, Hoffman appeared in two films at Sundance, both of which may qualify as his final efforts: In the John le Carré adaptation
A Most Wanted Man, he adopted a German accent to play a disillusioned intelligence officer in Hamburg; and in
God’s Pocket, the directorial debut of John Slattery, he starred as an alcoholic screw-up trying to cover up the death of a family member. Whether or not Hoffman will appear in those concluding chapters of
The Hunger Games remains to be seen. Either way, he’s left behind a rich, eclectic body of work, and an impossible void for Hollywood to fill.
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