Philip Seymour Hoffman: Death of the Master

12 minute read

Correction appended: March 7.

The movie truism is that stars play themselves, while actors play other people — troubled or toxic, and memorably strange. By that definition, Philip Seymour Hoffman, who disappeared into the rabbit hole of his characters’ souls, was our generation’s anti-star and the chameleonic film actor of his age.

He was Truman Capote, in his Oscar-winning turn, and the rock-critic sage Lester Bangs in Almost Famous. And the affable priest accused of pedophilia in Doubt, and the obnoxious interloper in The Talented Mr. Ripley. Also the off-puttingly genial leader of a cult in The Master, and the obscene phone caller in Happiness. Not to forget the porn-film gofer with the too-tight T-shirts in Boogie Nights, and the tabloid snoop who gets fricasseed in Red Dragon. Plus Plutarch Heavensbee, whose Cheshire Cat smile conceals no end of connivance in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. On Broadway he played Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman, Eugene O’Neill’s Jamie Tyrone and both brothers in Sam Shepard’s True West.

Hoffman, who was sober 23 years before relapsing in 2012 and ultimately returning to rehab last spring, had occasionally played addicts on the stage (the 2003 Shopping and F–king) and the screen (Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead in 2007). His admirers may have thought these simply proved that the guy could slip into any character convincingly, invest his persuasive skill in any role. “Actors are responsible to the people we play,” he told TIME’s Michael Krantz in 1999. “I don’t label or judge. I just play them as honestly and expressively and creatively as I can, in the hope that people who would ordinarily turn their heads in disgust instead think, ‘What I thought I’d feel about that guy, I don’t totally feel right now.'”

(READ: A 1999 profile of Philip Seymour Hoffman by subscribing to TIME)

What we feel right now is sorrow for an immense talent cut short in full flower, and for those who knew and loved Hoffman, not least his three children — Cooper, 10, Tallulah 7, and Willa, 5 — from his longtime partner Mimi O’Donnell, costume designer for Manhattan’s LAByrinth Theater, to which Hoffman devoted so much of his protean energies.

Born in Rochester, N.Y., in 1967 — the year that The Graduate made another stage-bred Hoffman, Dustin, an unlikely movie star — Philip was the son of a Xerox executive (Protestant) and a Family Court judge (Catholic). Every budding actor needs an early epiphany, and Phil’s came in seventh grade, when he saw the 17-year-old Robert Downey Jr. in a touring production of Alma for the Middle Class. “I loved it,” he would recall. “Loved it.” (Amazingly, considering his own checkered past, Downey would outlive Hoffman.) In 1984, before studying theater at NYU, he participated in the Summer School of the Performing Arts in Saratoga, where he met Bennett Miller and Dan Futterman, later the director and the screenwriter of Capote.

(SEE: Video of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s greatest roles)

After making a fleeting impression as Chris O’Donnell’s snarky classmate in Scent of a Woman (1992), he continued apprenticing in medium-size films like Robert Benton’s Nobody’s Fool (1994): he’s an uptight officer reading a traffic citation to Paul Newman, who grouses, “Boy, I hope you get laid sometime soon.” In the delightfully ragged film rendition of The Fifteen Minute Hamlet (1995) — Tom Stoppard’s Shakespeare boil-down, with all the famous lines breathlessly delivered — Hoffman, in lank blond hair, plays Bernardo, Laertes and Horatio to Austin Pendleton’s Hamlet and director Todd Louiso’s Ophelia. (At the end, producers tell Shakespeare it’s still too long, and he cuts it down to two minutes. Then, they love it.)

Paul Thomas Anderson saw potential in Hoffman, casting him as a craps shooter in Anderson’s debut feature Hard Eight and — breakout time — in Boogie Nights as the porn-film boom operator Scotty J., who can’t convince a budding star (Mark Wahlberg) to have sex with him. He would appear in all but one of the writer-director’s movies: nursing abusive old Jason Robards in Magnolia and asking, “Why are frogs falling from the sky?”; shouting down Adam Sandler in Punch Drunk Love; and bringing more charm than menace — more Saint Nick than Old Nick — to the L. Ron Hubbard stand-in in The Master.

(READ: Corliss’s review of The Master)

Typically, though, a Hoffman character was not master but slave — chained to simultaneous feelings of superiority and misery. For Allen in Todd Solondz’s Happiness, obscene phone-calling is an art, an obsession and his life; he believes that, otherwise, no one will listen to him. “People look at me and they get bored,” he muses. “People listen to me and they zone out. Bored.” But because Allen is played by Hoffman, boring is interesting. (In Solondz’s Happiness sequel Life During Wartime, with the same characters but a different cast, Allen is played by The Wire’s Michael K. Williams and has nearly retired from obscene calls. He now does it “just a little — on Sundays.”)

In his first movie decade, Hoffman got a few leads in lower-budget films. He was the transvestite neighbor to homophobic Robert De Niro in Flawless (a wan ancestor to Dallas Buyers Club). David Mamet cast him as a romantic-comic lead — a sweet-souled screenwriter — in State and Main. But usually he was that anomaly in modern Hollywood, the youngish character actor. In Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, Matt Damon is the ambitious charmer who kills a golden boy (Jude Law) on the Italian Riviera; then Hoffman’s Freddie Miles, an obnoxious but observant pal of the deceased, comes to visit, and Ripley bashes Freddie’s head in. Damon tries hard, but Hoffman is the one who should have played Ripley: soft, blond, smiling and treacherous. (Similarly, he would have been much more suitable for the Hoover role in J. Edgar that went instead to Leonardo DiCaprio.)

(SEE: A TIME photo gallery of Philip Seymour Hoffman)

Minghella gave Hoffman another strong supporting role, as the sleazy Reverend Veasey in 2003’s Cold Mountain. By then the actor’s admirers were wondering when Hoffman could stop having to steal movies and start being handed them. His old pals Futterman and Miller figured they had the project: Capote. Hoffman was not impressed. “I was like, ‘What the hell?’ I literally said, ‘What the hell?’ Then I started watching material on Capote, and I thought, ‘Oh. My. God. There’s no way I’m going to do that.'” He hoped the project would fall through. “I thought, If we never get the money, we’ll all be off the hook.” They got the money and Hoffman found the route to turn a mincing parody into a complex character. That got him the Oscar.

(READ: Hoffman on making Capote)

Capote’s speech affectations, as if a spoiled baby had swallowed helium, were far from Hoffman’s full baritone voice and forceful, conversational diction. These vocal traits, which he shared with Downey and Seth Rogen, won him plenty of roles as the Man Who Explains Things, who keeps the moviegoer tethered to the plot and brings clarity to compound-complex sentences. As John Goodman’s assistant in the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski, he tells Jeff Bridges’ The Dude that “He [Lebowski] believes the culprits might be the very people who, uh, soiled your rug, and you are in a unique position to confirm or disconfirm that suspicion.” Somehow Hoffman made it sound natural.

That gift for exposition was essential to his role in Charlie Wilson’s War. The stars, Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, ooze charm as two Texas wheeler-dealers who know that politics is a game of seduction. Then Hoffman, as a midlevel CIA operative aptly named Gust, storms in to demonstrate how other people get their way. He bullies, breaks things and lasers an oversize intelligence equal to his rage.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Charlie Wilson’s War)

Gust was the final jewel in Hoffman’s 2007 triple crown. His other roles that year — as failing guys with father issues in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead and The Savages — were terrific, too. The first displayed his ability to live inside a schemer not nearly as smart or lucky as he thinks he is; the second showcased his talent for lending the requisite charm to an essentially passive soul who can barely cope with mediocrity, let alone a family crisis. Gust is a stranger to pent-up anxiety. The character’s anger is as much a test of his opponents, a probing for their weak spots, as it is undisciplined venting. Hoffman, the champion line-reader, not only gets the information out but makes it seem like the high-speed conversation of a fellow you’d be stupid to tangle with.

He didn’t always connect with a role. As the star villain in JJ Abrams’ Mission: Impossible III, Hoffman was surprisingly unmannered. He did not twirl a mustache or stroke a cat; he was just a bad man in a worse mood, simmering and glowering. Rather than classing up this blockbuster, he lowered its temperature. Perhaps the actor couldn’t engage with a standard action fantasy; he needed some complexity in the connivers he played.

Hoffman’s biography merged with writer-director Charlie Kaufman’s soaring ambition in the epic tragicomedy Synecdoche, New York. Hoffman plays Caden Cotard, a Schenectady theater director who moves to Manhattan with the gigantic notion of putting on a realistic drama as big as all New York City. A self-styled truth-teller, Caden manages to exasperate or repel the fascinating women (including Catherine Keener, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Michelle Williams) who cross his downward path. The project drags on — it’s his life’s work, and it may take that long to finish — but Kaufman’s imagination never falters. The movie keeps getting bigger and weirder and denser and sadder and funnier, until all the pressure on Caden leads to a final implosion. Kaufman’s needed an actor who could play the great loser-hero, and Hoffman was up to the challenge — his most daring film achievement.

(READ: Corliss on Synecdoche, New York)

In one of his last roles, Hoffman plays a German spy in Anton Corbijn’s adaptation of the John Le Carré novel A Most Wanted Man, which had its world premiere at last month’s Sundance Film Festival. TIME’s Catherine Mayer, who saw a rough cut in London, reports that Hoffman “plays a man so battered by the world that he should have retreated into cynicism, yet somehow he cannot retreat. He is hardbitten, yet exposed; street-savvy, but horribly vulnerable. As a thrilling spy yarn, the plot keeps you on edge through every twist and turn. Yet it was the human story, Hoffman’s story, that proved most compelling.”

(READ: Catherine Mayer on Hoffman in A Most Wanted Man)

For all his film renown, Hoffman said: “Theater is where I have more of a home. It’s a place where you’re not going to believe your own press. You either suck or you don’t. It’s a great humbler.” As impressive a director as a stage actor, he brought the same intelligence to mounting plays and shaping the performances of other actors. TIME’s Richard Zoglin found room on his annual 10 Best lists for two of Hoffman’s LAByrinth productions: The Glory of Living and The Last Days of Judas Iscariot — “a bold, blasphemous examination of the notion of forgiveness.”

In 2006, paying tribute to Hoffman as a member of the TIME 100, Vanessa Redgrave, perhaps the great stage actress of her generation, wrote of his work with her in O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night: “I didn’t know his work when we first sat down to read the play, and I didn’t know the man when the Tyrone family took its last bow on Broadway in August 2003. But I saw this conjuror bring Jamie Tyrone out of the obscurity that embeds the greatest of scripts. No, I didn’t see the conjuror. That’s the whole point. I never saw the conjuror. Jamie Tyrone appeared. When? I don’t know. The desperate, accusing eyes of the drunk looked hard into the eyes of his mother the morphine addict. A thousand horrible and tender memories pierced through the addictions, demanding appeasement at all costs. All this long before costume, hair and makeup.” Hoffman was 38 when he played with Redgrave, who wrote: “I hope I get to see him play King Lear when he’s 50.”

(READ: Vanessa Redgrave on Philip Seymour Hoffman)

She will not; he will not; his children will not. To the show reel of indelible memories from Hoffman’s career, we must now add one final image: of a 46-year-old man discovered dead in the bathroom of a West Greenwich Village apartment, a syringe stuck in his left arm, packets of heroin strewn nearby. This, from New York City police reports, completes the Hoffman portrait gallery of sad, brilliant, rumpled men. Like so many of his characters, Hoffman was a smart guy who outsmarted himself.

Correction: The original version of this story misattributed a line from Paul Giamatti’s character in The Ides of March to Hoffman’s character in the same film.

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