Every time a trailer was released for another Phillip Seymour Hoffman film, I knew it was a must-see even before it had a chance to play through.
It’s been over a week now and I still can’t believe that he’s really gone, lost to us at age 46. Heroin and prescription drugs were found in his apartment along with his body; he was clean and sober for over 20 years before falling off the wagon. I hope that now he finds the peace he was looking for during his recent troubled times.
Hoffman, to me, was always best defined by the role I first saw him in – Lester Bangs in “Almost Famous.” Bangs was a real-life rock journalist, and according to a recent account posted by writer/director Cameron Crowe on his website, Hoffman would listen intently to his interviews in between takes. When it came time to perform a scene that is truly the heart of this film, he delivered it quite differently than Crowe had intended, creating “a scene about quiet truths shared between two guys, both at the crossroads, both hurting, and both up too late,” instead of “a loud, late night pronouncement” and “a call to arms.” That was his gift, to dig deeper than any other actor possibly could, and to be believable in whatever character he was inhabiting.
That speech he gives about being uncool not only stuck with me personally, but colored how I viewed Hoffman until the very end.
“We’re uncool. And while women will always be a problem for us, most of the great art in the world is about that very same problem. Good-looking people don’t have any spine. Their art never lasts. They get the girls, but we’re smarter,” he told main character William Miller, a young and naïve journalist who just got his first big break with a “cool” band.
“Great art is about conflict and pain and guilt and longing and love disguised as sex, and sex disguised as love… and let’s face it, you got a big head start.”
By Hollywood standards, Hoffman was uncool. He was chubby, usually bearded, and often unkempt – a typical leading man he was not. And yet that’s what made him perfect to lead, from “Capote” to “Doubt” to “The Master” to underrated gems like “Synecdoche, New York.” Almost every movie in his filmography is absolutely amazing, and even when he’s not the main character, it feels like he is because his brilliant scenes resonate and stay with you, reaching a level that typical mainstream actors simply couldn’t. Even when he showed up in blockbusters like “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” he elevated his simple scenes with subtle gravitas that said all it needed to say without any dialogue needed.
I’m disgusted by all the columns and blogs I’ve seen online that have used Bangs’ life story as a “told you so” lesson – he also died of an accidental drug overdose in 1982 – rather than the tragic symmetry that it is. They continue to quote Bangs’ thoughts on Janis Joplin’s death, also by overdose: “It’s not just that this kind of early death has become a fact of life that has become disturbing, but that it’s been accepted as a given so quickly.”
By doing this, they’re missing the point of Lester’s words – they’re coldly reporting facts rather than looking beneath the surface of the issue. Yes, Hoffman did it to himself, but why? What motivated him to poison his own body, to leave his three children behind? It wasn’t just for a quick high, which is what these hack writers are implying. It wasn’t for thrills and it wasn’t because he had money to burn. Addiction is not a black and white issue to be politicized, and this isn’t an open-and-shut case of excess.
Let us extend the same courtesy to him that he gave to audiences everywhere for decades – dig deeper, study and debate, question and let your thoughts linger. What you conclude immediately isn’t truth but temporary interpretation, and I promise you, upon reflection, you’ll see that isn’t something to be “accepted,” but mourned, contemplated, and studied. He was well-loved in his neighborhood, respected in his career, and those who worked with or were close to him eulogized him fondly – does this sound like someone who left this Earth willingly?
“The West Wing” creator Aaron Sorkin, a fellow addict, said Hoffman once told him that, “If one of us dies of an overdose, probably 10 people who were about to won’t.” He was well aware that there was something to be learned in his death, but it wasn’t in the form of self-righteous preaching or shortsighted blame. He wasn’t just trying to be cool because he knew damn well that he wasn’t.
And that’s exactly what made him the coolest actor of his generation. Rest in peace, Phillip. Your coolness, along with its underlying message and inspiration, lives on.
-Rich Howells is a lifelong Marvel Comics collector, wannabe Jedi master, and cult film fan. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.