Philip Seymour Hoffman lived very close to us, in Manhattan. He was very visible in the neighborhood, riding his (old) bike, walking with his children, or sitting at a café, either murmuring to a companion while simultaneously filling a room or looking out from a table, alone, as if he belonged in that spot. I would always do an inner double take when I saw him in person. The first take would be to marvel at how relaxed he seemed, how comfortable in his skin, what a man-of-the-people mood he seemed to have about him. And the second take would be to think, my god, I just walked past one of the most intense, malleable, transformable American actors alive today, and I didn’t have to seek him out, didn’t have to stalk him: he was right in front of me. And as I watched more and more of his films, and simultaneously had the experience of passing him on the street, it occurred to me that the quality I was identifying as relaxedness might in fact be readiness: readiness to launch himself into a role, a situation, a life choice that would be dynamic, shocking, not pleasant to watch unfolding, but memorable, all the same, if memorable is an adequate word to use for his performances.
When great actors die as Hoffman did, revealing staggering addictions, or psyches run ragged because some unspecified demon is chasing them, the question always becomes: did the role become the person, or did the person become the role, or both? When Heath Ledger died similarly, Jack Nicholson was quoted as saying, “I warned him,” about the Ambien use that resulted from playing the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight—one must assume that playing the same character in Tim Burton’s version of the story did a number on Nicholson as well. We could speculate a long time about to what extent actors can be said to “choose” their roles, but we can say, with some certainty, that if you’re validated by your work, then the roles you play begin to form a house you inhabit, shaped to your specifications. Hoffman’s turn as Freddie Miles in The Talented Mr. Ripley, his soft tones evidence of a poisonous mix of wealth and reckless immorality, would form one beam of the house; his plaintive turn as Scotty J. in Boogie Nights, kissing up with futility to the cuter and better-equipped Dirk Diggler, would form another beam; the personification of sensitivity, intelligence, insidiousness, and self-absorption that was his performance of the title role in Capote would form another beam; his grand but pitiful presence in The Master would form another; and on it goes. The roles he played had in common a sense of uncomfortable intensity, as if there were an oblong, burning form lodged somewhere inside him that he bore patiently, but not without unhappiness that drove everything he did—even at his most relaxed moments on screen, he seemed badly in need of psychic fresh air.
And that’s why we watched Hoffman. And that’s why, with each film, our expectations of him grew. America’s love of its stars and its celebrities is very closely linked to its culture of expectation. From the smallest arenas to the largest, we have expectations. We want our children to over-perform, to impress us; we want each other to constantly succeed, to constantly out-do, over-achieve; and we want our celebrities to be, in a sense, like gods. We don’t want them to grow old. We don’t want them to stumble from grace. And, most of all, we don’t want them to be human. And so, when an actor like Hoffman, possessed of such a great talent along with the inner complexity necessary to display that talent to its fullest, reveals himself, at the latest count, to have had at least eight empty bags of heroin in his apartment at time of death, we’re stunned, and shocked, and we remark on the great tragedy of the moment, and we’re correct to do so. It is tragic. But the significance of such an event should also be to remind us that we’re all human beings, and that part of our expectation, of our celebrities and ourselves, is that we will be just this: beautiful and imperfect, imperfect and beautiful, two qualities which will strive against each other so valiantly that you might mistakenly think one quality might be victorious.
Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.