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Remembering Philip Seymour Hoffman

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire February 3, 2014 at 4:06PM

Critics pay tribute to one of his generation's greatest actors, and grapple with his sudden death.
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As the shock and grief over the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman turned to professional obligation Sunday afternoon, many critics called his obituary the hardest thing they'd ever had to write. Partly, of course, it was the suddenness of his passing, the squalid image of one of the greatest actors of his generation lying dead on a bathroom floor with a needle in his arm, the tragedy of a brilliant artist falling prey to an addiction he'd struggled with for half his life. But it was also the magnitude of his body of work, the fact that he gave so many great performances in so many different kinds of roles that it was impossible to raise one up above the rest and say this was the height of his art. Even some of the greatest actors' careers can be boiled down to a single iconic part, the one, so to speak, you'd put in a time capsule for future generations to savor. In Hoffman's case, the only solution is to get a bigger time capsule.

I met him once myself, for an interview about Love Liza, in which he plays a man grieving his wife's suicide. It was brief, and the resultant article was briefer still, but I'm struck by the way he defended the movie's decision to linger on his character's sorrow without glossing over it.

"A lot of films take grieving, or loss or depression, and compress it, so before the movie's over, you can tell the person's probably gonna fall in love again, or be happy again, or whatever," he said. "This film is basically telling you, no, that's not what happens. It's funny, people will think there's actually a lot more emoting than there is. The tough thing to watch is that he's not releasing all that much, except in these odd ways. That's what interested me about the script. The film wasn't about him going, oh boo hoo hoo, oh my god, my wife's dead. The film was a real specific exploration of what somebody does to not go boo hoo hoo."

These are only a fraction of the many impassioned and heartbroken words written about Hoffman in the last 24 hours, but it's a sampling of how profound and lasting his mark on the movies, and the theater, will be, even as we we wish he could have lasted longer still. 

Scott Meslow, The Week

The difficulty of writing a tribute to Hoffman, who died yesterday at age 46, is a testament to his chameleon-like range as an actor. How can you summarize the career of a man who, in film after film, demonstrated his talents with a confidence and clarity that eludes even his greatest contemporaries? How could anyone pick one, or five, or 15 favorite Philip Seymour Hoffman performances when each of his performances carried so much singular complexity?

Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times

How could a person who could effortlessly be so many people suddenly not be here at all? It doesn't seem possible.

A.O. Scott, New York Times

As the heavy, the weird friend or the volatile co-worker in a big commercial movie he could offer not only comic relief but also the specific pleasure that comes from encountering an actor who takes his art seriously no matter the project. He may have specialized in unhappiness, but you were always glad to see him....

He did not care if we liked any of these sad specimens. The point was to make us believe them and to recognize in them -- in him -- a truth about ourselves that we might otherwise have preferred to avoid. He had a rare ability to illuminate the varieties of human ugliness. No one ever did it so beautifully.

Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly

He was a force of an actor, an artist who poured so much of himself into his performances that when I heard about his death, I felt a little like I had lost a member of my family. He was an actor you ended up caring deeply about because of his casual fearlessness, his gruff twinkle of reality, his utter lack of baloney, and -- no small instrument for an actor to possess -- the wily fascination of his mind. You always got the feeling that his characters were so interesting because he was interesting, and he saw and understood, as part of his process, their hidden depths.

Stephanie Zacharek, Village Voice

To watch Hoffman -- in the movies and, if you were fortunate enough, onstage -- was pure pleasure. He was an extremely serious performer, an eternal student of that pretentious-sounding thing we call the actor's craft. Yet technique melted under his touch - he made acting look like nothing at all, but also like something magnificent. He was magical and solid at once, a bracingly physical actor -- impish, whiskery, slightly rotund -- who looked as if he might have stepped from the pages of Chaucer, though he also radiated lightness.

Tom Carson, GQ

He had the most beautiful voice of any modern American actor. (Really, listen to it -- it's amazing.) But he got into most of his parts by getting physical. In Charlie Wilson's War, for instance, Hoffman pins down the character not by acting more intelligent than everybody else -- which he is -- but by being a slob. His shirt is always leaking over his belt-line, and that makes the contrast with the clotheshorses he's surrounded by indelible. As Capote, he didn't go through some grotesque preproduction mutation to turn himself elfin. He just behaved as if he was elfin.

Matt Zoller Seitz, RogerEbert.com

His voice was emotional pretzel logic. His voice was anger placed where passion should have gone. His voice was regret. It was disappointment. It was yearning. It was bourbon and dying embers. 

Jason Zinoman, Vanity Fair

His performances had method intensity mixed with the knockabout physicality of the early years of Off-Off Broadway. He sunk into his characters, attacking them from the inside with a full-throttle intensity. While he had remarkable range, if I were to pinpoint a common denominator, it would be that his restless characters always seemed at war with themselves, violently introspective until impotently explosive.

Tim Grierson, Deadspin

Hoffman never played down to the material, nor did he try to artificially elevate popcorn fare with theatrical flair. No matter how big a star he got, he kept that everyman quality, figuring out how to make roles distinctive without being showy about it.

Nathan Rabin, The Dissolve

When I heard that Philip Seymour Hoffman had died, I actually uttered a very movie-like cry of "No!!!!" on the city bus I was on. I felt mildly ridiculous about having such an intense and dramatic response to the death of a celebrity I'd never met. But part of the genius of Hoffman was that everyone felt like they knew him through his work, because he was one of those actors who left everything up there on the screen. 

David Fear, Rolling Stone, and Mike Ryan, Huffington Post

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.

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....

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.

Eric Kohn, Indiewire:

Hoffman appeared in Hollywood movies but never became one with that community. In the most literal sense, he was pure New York, a ubiquitous figure who mingled downtown at various screenings and other events. Seemingly every local had a Hoffman story. In 2012, Indiewire hosted a screening of Kenneth Lonergan's "Margaret," and Hoffman was the first to arrive, hiding meekly beneath a baseball cap, just there to enjoy the show. Anyone who randomly encountered Hoffman in his natural habitat had a similar reaction: Not the usual "I though he was taller" routine, but something far deeper and unshakable: He was just so human.

Alissa Wilkinson, Christianity Today

I always had the keen sense that this was not "just acting" to him. He was, emphatically, not a movie star. Acting was less job, more vocation or calling, almost a cross to bear, as wild as that may sound. He said as much in interviews - talked about how painful the work was to him, how it hurt to inhabit another person that way.

David Edelstein, New York

"I think deep down inside, people understand how flawed they are," he said. "I think the more benign you make somebody, the less truthful it is."

Yes … if you think that who we are at our worst is who we really are. And I'm pretty sure Hoffman did think that.

Amy Nicholson, L.A. Weekly

So many roles. So much talent. And such a shock to have it hammered home that Philip Seymour Hoffman was just 46 and yet had spent 23 years -- literally half his life -- in sobriety. 

Richard Brody, New Yorker

Genius, whether at its most constructive or destructive, its most sublime or its most repugnant, is unnatural; Hoffman lived for great art, and it's impossible to escape the idea that he died for it. The complete price of his nearly superhuman ability has yet to be reckoned.

Alex Pappademas, Grantland

We’ll think more than we would have about how Hoffman's demons may have shaped the work he did. For what it's worth -- and I met him exactly once, so it's not worth a whole lot -- I can't accept the notion that the demons made him great. I want to believe the key was kindness.

Linda Holmes, NPR

I apologize for the fact that I have just left out many people's favorite Hoffman performances in film, not to mention the entirety of his life in theater. It cannot be helped. There are -- it is tired already but entirely true to say -- too many to allow a good summary. His career never peaked; it just rang out over and over, and the pain of it for selfish admirers is that the peak might still have been coming. 

Dana Stevens, Slate

For years to come -- as long as I'm still around to watch movies, which right now feels like a very lucky position to be in -- I'll see other actors playing roles that should have belonged to Hoffman, and feel his loss anew.

Zack Handlen, Music That Nobody Heard

There are lot of things to say about PSH's career. Actors like him don’t come around often, and there was so much more he could and should have done that it’s hard to grasp the scope of the loss. And yes, addiction is horrible and terrifying, and as a culture we need to learn to be more humane in how we aid the afflicted. But what I feel the loss of today is the honesty that permeated every aspect of his work, from the smallest bit part to the most multifaceted leading role. The man had dignity and presence and charisma, but none of those qualities ever let you forget that he was perpetually at war with the messy, sprawling stupidity of being alive. He was not perfect. He was not gleaming or well-muscled or sculpted or pristine. He was uncool. And god, he was just so fucking beautiful.


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