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Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Turning Point

by Leonard Maltin
February 3, 2014 4:09 PM
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Courtesy of The Weinstein Company Hoffman in "The Master."

I’m still in shock about the sudden and untimely death of Philip Seymour Hoffman. It’s not just that we’ve lost one of the best actors of our time, or the realization that he leaves behind a partner and three young children. It’s that a man with such a great gift got caught in the grip of addiction and let it overtake his life. (Ironically, one of my favorite performances of his is in the 2003 film Owning Mahowny, about a man who is addicted—to gambling. I never dreamt that he might have had a personal connection to the character.)

I’ve been reading the transcript of an interview I did with Hoffman at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival in 2006, right after he was nominated for an Oscar for his performance in Capote, and there are some passages I want to share with you today.

He spoke about the moment he was overtaken by the magic of theater. “My Mom was a huge theatergoer and a huge moviegoer, too—still is. She took me to the theater for the first time and the play was All My Sons. I was twelve. It’s a great play and at the end of the play the father goes off stage and kills himself. It’s a very sappy, corny memory but I remember thinking I had found something that no one knew about. I just could not get over the fact that these people in front of me were getting me to believe something that was not happening. I matured in that two hours just experiencing that.”

I asked if that inspired him to try out for plays in school but he explained that he was involved in athletics then. “I was a baseball player and I played a little football and I didn’t think I’d ever be an actor. I just thought ‘I’ll be a professional theatergoer,’ you know? To this day, I kind of prefer watching sometime, ‘cause I really do love it…there’s nothing better than that.

Philip Seymour Hoffman in a scene from "A Late Quartet."

“I got injured when I was a sophomore in high school, injured pretty bad, wrestling. My mom said, ‘Well, why don’t you go out for the play?’ I’ve told this story many times. There was this girl who was a senior and she was gonna go out for the play. I remember I was walking down the hall and I had my baseball mitt in my hand, and I think I was contemplating  whether to still play baseball. I was walking down the hallway and she was walking the other way. You know, back then two years seems, like, forever, and she seemed older and grander. [I said] ‘Where are you going?’ and she said, ‘Oh, I’m going to try out for the play.’ I kept walking, and I remember putting the glove in my locker… I went and auditioned for the play because she was in there.

“Then I got in a play and I thought I had found—just like when I found sports when I was a young kid, it was the same feeling. I thought I had found something else where I felt like I should be.”

Eventually, during our long conversation, I asked him about the rewards he continued to receive from his chosen profession. He admitted feeling uncomfortable about praise—and awards—and offered this observation.

“I teach acting sometimes—not a lot, but once in a while—and what I really try to say to them, ‘cause I know it’s true, is that if you’re doing a play or you’re shooting a film the way you feel after a performance that night, or a day of work, if you’ve done well, is the best it gets. You don’t need anyone to tell you anything because you did well and that feeling—I always say it’s like when you can go home and fall asleep and wake up well-rested. That’s as good as it gets, because everything else is fleeting…and that feeling stays with you. It’s what keeps you going back to work.”

We’ll always have the work Philip Seymour Hoffman did on film to remind us of his enormous talent. I only wish he had licked his demons so we could have had more.


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  • Jo | February 16, 2014 6:01 PMReply

    Still think of Owning Mahowny most when I think of him now. He didn't like the monetary rewards (bank fraud) so much as the addiction.

  • Norm | February 10, 2014 1:49 PMReply

    You cannot act your way out of death or heroin addiction, et tu Bela ?... There must be a course or book on how to deal with "Success." This extends to all walks of life not just thespians.

  • ugly george | February 4, 2014 5:51 PMReply

    It is now part of NY/Hollywood lore that Phil Hoffman & Ugly George were ALMOST in "Boogie Nights" together. A P.A. found said UG while filming & (breathlessly) relayed that the Producers were hoping to find & cast me in it to raise ratings. But later he phoned with the sad news that one of the Investors threatened to pull her $$$ out of it if said UG were to 'dirty up' her film. But now UG has been asked to re-live the Highlights of the NYC Adult Film Scene of 70s-80s!

  • Allan | February 4, 2014 12:37 AMReply

    It doesn't matter who you are. You have moments where you're alone with yourself. And for a lot of us (me included), it's too much; it's not enough; it's uncomfortable; it hurts. And many many people live their lives dealing with this. Call it anxiety, depression, existential angst, whatever. It exists. Some cope, some take prescription anxiolytic drugs and antidepressants. Some drink. Some go to therapy or work out and run.

    But once you've experienced the softness of a world that stops; that absolute contentment - forget bliss and ecstasy mostly - when everything is ok, and you can breathe and think (and nod off)... If you've got that "sand in the sheets" thing going on and you experience a good opiate, specifically heroin - forget it. It's the thing you've always been looking for. It's part blessing, mostly horrible burden.

    RIP. You dun good in your 50 odd years. It's not all bad news.

  • Reini Urban | February 3, 2014 8:46 PMReply

    My favorite and most specific PSH film is "Love Liza", and since this film I knew that he is not purely acting, rather that he is experiencing problems with addiction. In this movie he is seriously depressed and sniffs gasoline fuel, and then he is getting attached to remote-control airplanes. He always liked to play the underdog, and almost never did a big movie sellout. I wouldn't call him a genius, more a prototypical underdog who happened to can play realistically and overly manneristic and pathetic. Like a De Niro mixed with german acting. Sometimes in the same scene. I wonder why his depression came back? The failure of his own movie? Or was his own movie just the sign of his resurrection of the depression?

  • D. J. Fone | February 3, 2014 8:44 PMReply

    Whenever I hear of such a talented actor caught in the deadly throes of addiction, I recall how often I've heard actors explain WHY they became actors: Because they feel much more comfortable being someone else --- with their thoughts, words, and actions scripted and their character's denouement known --- than being themselves and facing each day as a new challenge. Drug addiction is one result. Mr. Hoffman's tragic death may confirm this.

  • Jim Reinecke | February 3, 2014 4:26 PMReply

    A sad and shocking loss of a singularly talented individual. The question I keep asking is "Why?" Why do so many of these people, who seem to be living what to so many of us is a dream existence, who seem to have the world by the tail, why do they need to use this stuff? And why do they seem to think that they can beat it when history overwhelmingly proves otherwise? Such a pity.

  • Deanna | February 3, 2014 5:40 PM

    Jim, unfortunately his battle with addiction began long before he had "the world by the tail." No amount of success and happiness in the world can remove that impulse once it's been triggered.

    I feel so horrible for his family and close friends, not only because of his death but because he declined and crashed so fast at the end of his life. It's so hard to watch someone you love destroy themselves like that.

  • steve dollinger | February 3, 2014 4:15 PMReply

    leonard, I think the best best picture he did was DOUBT. Why you may ask...Answer is simple. In that movie, there was a total suspension of disbelief. In other words, for the entire film, onc really believed he was the part... The small nuances of him picked up by the camera seemed uniquely real.... Please comment on this thought as I greatly respect your opinion.. ty

  • - | February 3, 2014 5:22 PM

    I just watched Doubt for the 4th or 5th time, I always finish watching with a different opinion on whether or not he did it. Brilliant.

  • Kathy | February 3, 2014 4:07 PMReply

    The trouble is Leonard, we speak in hushed tones when someone extraordinary comes along in the arts. We accept it as a normal part of the creative process. Why did not anyone call him out for it? Why were producers and directors still letting it slide in the face of completing his "art"? Surely we must do something within the entertainment community to stop this insane cycle of destruction for the sake of "art". Many people seem to view this tragic person and his loss as how we've lost future performances yet to see. For God's Sake.

  • CTR | February 3, 2014 3:10 PMReply

    I remember first noticing Hoffman in a moment from Scent of a Woman when his character chickens out of doing the right thing and tries to convince Chris O'Donnell's character to do the same. The way PSH played it was just ingenious, like trying to convince his friend and ultimately himself at the same time. When people in real life do the same thing, I think of that scene.

    This death is a catastrophic loss to the craft of acting as well as film culture in general.

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