You might have registered him briefly as a student in Scent of a Woman, or as John Cusack’s blue-collar pal in Money for Nothing, or as a hotshot gambler working the tables in Hard Eight. He may have made an impression on you as the caffeinated storm chaser in the Nineties nouveau disaster movie Twister. But the first time you probably saw Philip Seymour Hoffman — really saw him onscreen — was in Boogie Nights. His character, Scotty, is a production assistant on a 1970s porn shoot, a lumpy mouthbreather always lurking on the periphery. The most distinguishing thing about him is that he seems incapable of finding a T-shirt that actually fits his doughy torso.
Then Scotty sees Mark Wahlberg’s well-hung superstar Dirk Diggler in action, and the overgrown manboy is smitten. For the rest of the film, Scotty is radiant even as he churns helplessly in Diggler’s coked-out wake, desperately trying to replicate his studly object of affection’s couture and disco coolness. Watch the naked emotional neediness as he clumsily tries to impress his crush by showing off his new car. Observe Scotty’s embarrassment as he fumbles a pass at Diggler, begging him for a kiss and admitting how deep his love is. Try not to cringe as this lovelorn barnacle bangs his head, repeating, “I’m a fucking idiot!” like a mantra. There is a sense of innocence and vulnerability in Hoffman’s performance. What’s missing is any sense of actorly ego. The character is a complete, unabashed loser. You want to push him away and hug him at the same time. You can’t take your eyes off of him.
No modern actor was better at making you feel sympathy for fucking idiots, failures, degenerates, sad sacks and hangdogs dealt a bum hand by life, even as — no, especially when — he played them with all of their worst qualities front and center. But Philip Seymour Hoffman had a range that seemed all-encompassing, and he could breathe life into any role he took on: a famous author, a globetrotting partyboy aristocrat, a German counterintelligence agent, a charismatic cult leader, a genius who planned games of death in dystopic futures. He added heft to low-budget art films, and nuance and unpredictability to blockbuster franchises. He was a transformative performer who worked from the inside out, blessed with an emotional transparency that could be overwhelming, invigorating, compelling, devastating. And above all, Hoffman had a talent for pinpointing the humanistic even in the most horrible characters. “I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher,” he intoned in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2012 magnum opus The Master. “But, above all, I am a man. A hopelessly inquisitive man, just like you.”
When news that Philip Seymour Hoffman had been found dead in his Manhattan apartment, the result of an alleged overdose, started to spread Sunday afternoon, the Internet iteration of the Kübler-Ross model began to take hold: Please let this be a hoax; oh my God, I don’t think this is a hoax; R.I.P. But what came through the most wasn’t just the genuine sense of shock that rippled throughout the Twitterverse, even though folks had been aware that Hoffman had admitted to drug problems in the past and had completed a stint in rehab last year. It wasn’t the sense that we’d been robbed of so many great performances that were yet to come, or even the sadness that accompanies a death at the way-too-young age of 46, especially one that leaves behind three young kids. It was the sense of a personal loss among the legion of fans — fellow actors and average filmgoers alike — that made this feel different somehow. Hoffman didn’t just make you believe that he was Truman Capote, the role for which he won an Oscar, or a megalomaniac villain in Mission: Impossible III. He made you feel connected to these people, no matter how far out or fantastic they were. He made you feel for them, period.
So we grieve, and you remember every time Hoffman surprised us and jolted us onscreen. You think about Scotty and Capote and Brandt, the grinning toady (“The little Lebowski achievers, yes, yes!”) he played in The Big Lebowski. We think about his beautifully tender take on Lester Bangs, someone who wasn’t exactly known for being tender all the time, in Almost Famous. You think of the funny, frightening temper tantrums he unleashes in Charlie Wilson’s War and Punch-Drunk Love. You think of the clichés he avoided so deftly in movies like Flawless, in which he plays a drag queen who has to teach Robert De Niro’s stroke victim to be kind. You think about his work with Paul Thomas Anderson, a filmmaker who instinctively got Hoffman from the get-go and who can be seen affectionately imitating the actor on Magnolia‘s DVD extras, pretending to be indulging in all sort of actorly business — and then we see what Hoffman actually did with the caretaker role in that ensemble film, and how it’s totally free of any of that goofy grandstanding. If you were lucky enough to see him in any of the LAByrinth productions, a New York theater company he joined in 1995, or catch him on Broadway when he performed True West with John C. Reilly in 2000 or Death of a Salesman in 2012, you think about what a magnetic presence this gentleman was onstage.
And if you happened to have spent any time with him on a personal level, you think about what an incredibly nice, generous guy Hoffman could be. A group of friends and I were at the Standard Hotel last fall for a festival afterparty when we decided to sneak upstairs to the rooftop bar. When we got up there, standing by himself was Hoffman, apart from all the celebrities and revelers downstairs; he was just hanging out by the balcony, in jeans and a T-shirt, taking pictures of the view with his phone. My companion decided he was going to tell the actor how much he loved Along Came Polly, a somewhat lesser-known Ben Stiller comedy from 2004 that Hoffman co-starred in. We begged him not to bother the guy; brazen from booze, my friend approached him and we all turned around, pretending that we had no idea what was going on.
Hoffman thanked him for the kind words and started up a conversation; soon, he’d walked over to where the rest of us were standing and introduced himself. He then hung out and talked with us for a good 20 minutes, telling us LAByrinth stories, asking what we’d thought of the screening, looking at pictures of foreign posters for The Master we had on our phones (“Oh, I love that, I need to get that one!” he said about a particularly artsy Polish poster), just shooting the shit. Then he said goodnight, and slowly ambled back to where he’d been standing, all by himself.
We were all buzzing from the chat. One person wondered if he talked to fans at these kinds of events all the time. Another remarked that, isolated from the party and people up here, Hoffman just seemed like he was really, really lonely. We all agreed, then went back downstairs en masse. He waved, and we waved back. Then he went back to looking at the Manhattan skyline.