Sunday, February 2, 2014

Philip Seymour Hoffman, 1967 - 2014

Gone. Just like that. At age 46, still in the prime of a life enriched by marvelous screen achievements and a presence straight out of the golden age of Hollywood, Philip Seymour Hoffman has fallen silent. The news has hit us like a tidal wave of grief, and amidst early reports that his demise may be related to a drug overdose, an added layer of shock overwhelms the mourning process. How is it possible, or fair, that such a bright star could be gone so early in his promising life? What solace could there be in dealing with this news, and what does this do for the films left incomplete by his sudden departure? Reasons, cause, fault – all of those emotions are irrelevant in this one somber moment. What we are left with is a career that would be the envy of any aspiring thespian in an industry inundated by mere dialogue readers and half-serious underachievers mugging for the camera.

Hoffman was exceedingly far above that standard, often without being self-aware. A simple grocery store clerk at the time he decided to pursue acting in his adult years, the big screen saw him trickle into minor roles in the early 1990s, starting with a notable appearance in “Scent of a Woman” as an idiosyncratic college roommate. Others followed – including a bit part in the disaster blockbuster “Twister” – but it was in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights” where the audience got the first taste of more resonating qualities. Here, the quirky, unassuming personality often held at bay by earlier and more conventional roles seemed to find a symphonic outlet. There was no question while watching him that we were dealing with more than someone who just happened to come into the profession; the exuberant gusto of his presence was captivating and instinctive, and his ability to embody a wide range of characters from distinguished to pathetic suggested some deep versatility that is a rarity in this generation of performers.

Over the course of the following two decades he refined – and then perfected – those skills, and they made him one of the most consistently sought after stars for accomplished filmmakers (including the Coen Brothers, Anthony Minghella and Cameron Crowe). Anderson used him again in later ensemble dramas like “Magnolia” and “Punch Drunk Love,” while others incorporated him in a long and thriving list of other significant motion picture achievements (my personal favorite: “State and Main,” an obscure David Mamet comedy from 2000 about the making of a movie in a small community). Supporting roles eventually evolved into leads, and in 2005 he gave a transcending performance in “Capote,” a film about the famed eccentric novelist whose “In Cold Blood” remains quintessential reading in the true crime world. That accomplishment deservingly won him the Academy Award, and later roles proved to be equally wise career choices (some might even say that his recent feat in “The Master” came close to matching the prowess of his Truman Capote embodiment).

Somehow, in that short span of time, he also found the energy to flex other artistic muscles. Accolades – not to mention Tony award nominations – followed several stints in theater work, including one notable run in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” in the recent years. The 2010 film “Jack Goes Boating” also became his first foray into directing, showing promise in an avenue where actors like Clint Eastwood and George Clooney have found an added layer of cinematic relevance. Outside of the professional landscape, there were also joyous private achievements like a marriage and fathering three children. One cannot begin to imagine what friends, relatives and an assortment of loved ones can be going through knowing that his sobering personality and sly gaze are now only mere images preserved in celluloid.

There are few constants in film; even the greatest of actors and actresses can be subject to great trash or missteps as the years churn on. What is most fascinating about Hoffman’s path in Hollywood is that it remained incredibly consistent once he built up the necessary momentum. Looking back on that career, it reads like a list of essential cinematic endeavors of the last 20 years. “Happiness.” “Magnolia.” “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” “Almost Famous.” “25th Hour.” “Cold Mountain.” “The Savages.” “Senechdoche, New York.” “Doubt.” “Moneyball.” That kind of track record would have made the likes of Orson Welles envious. Lesser films like “Mission: Impossible III,” meanwhile, were not so much missteps as they were simply minor experiments that allowed him to indulge in more lightweight material (yet with some level of continued enthusiasm). It remains to be seen how the “Hunger Games” film series will ultimately deal with his loss (he was a good week’s worth of shooting away from the last of them wrapping principal photography), and to some the untimely passing shares echoes with that of Heath Ledger, who died in 2008 of similar circumstances while his own endeavor with director Terry Gilliam was left mostly unfinished (it later was completed using several stand-in actors).

Because we charge the arts with reflecting our value systems, those that work within the industry sometimes become extensions of families rather than just figures in front of a camera, especially when they play characters that mirror human individualism. Movie stars and distinguished actors, alas, die every day, most of them eroded by old age and disease –and they often leave notable voids in our hearts. When a man like Hoffman passes on as a result of more questionable circumstances, our minds have a harder time dealing with the tragedy because the loss seems so preventative. The following weeks and months will be chock-full of fodder for gossip rags and exploitative celebrity news outlets seeking details on his final days, and most will find themselves caught up in that whirlwind as a way of attaining some level of understanding. The reality, however, is that there will never be an answer absolute enough to defuse dealing with his death. Our culture still feels the shock waves over the unfortunate loss of many such idolized figures, including River Phoenix, James Dean and, more recently, Paul Walker.

Hoffman joins the unfortunate company of many a great artist lost in their youth to the curse of mortality, but what remains are movies enriched by a talent that will forever be remembered and admired. That, beyond a reasonable doubt, will ensure his legacy in an industry far-sighted enough to allow departed stars to achieve professional immortality.

Written by DAVID KEYES

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