Playing the notoriously uncool music critic Lester Bangs in Cameron Crowe's 2000 film Almost Famous, Philip Seymour Hoffman remarks, 'great art is about conflict and pain and guilt and longing'. Found dead, alone, and with a needle of heroin in his arm in his New York apartment this month, the conflict and pain that linked so many of Hoffman's characters began to resonate with the final image of the man himself.
Much that has been said about the 46 year old's death concerns the ugly nature of addiction, and the futile 'what ifs...?' and 'if onlys...' had Hoffman not relapsed from 23 years of sobriety. It is not for us to judge a man who undoubtedly asked himself the very same questions during his final moments, not desiring but obliged to reenter a state whereby pleasure is derived only from the neutralisation of pain. What should be acknowledged is that it was a tragic end for someone who was perhaps the best of his generation at portraying tragic personalities.
Known for his bear-like stature and ruddy cheeks, he established his place in Hollywood not in the mould of the leading men, namely Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, who preceded him. Instead, he emerged as the pathetic Scotty J, a porn film sound technician who lusts after its star, Mark 'Dirk Diggler' Wahlberg, in Paul Thomas Anderson's 1997 Boogie Nights. After drunkenly revealing his unrequited feelings to Dirk, he lunges for him with a kiss destined to fail. Afterwards, shouting to himself in his car, 'I'm a fuggin' idiot! I'm a fuggin' idiot! I'm a fuggin' idiot!', he cuts a sad and self-loathing image. This was the arrival of an actor who could play characters which you certainly did not want to be like, but who tapped into moments of embarrassment and feelings of inferiority that nearly every viewer watching could relate to.
Following Boogie Nights, he went on to continuously bring the disenchanted outsider to centre stage, and to force his audience, as much as himself, to escape into their conflicts. By turns a compulsive masturbationist in Happiness, a lonely nurse in Magnolia, and a New England snob in The Talented Mr Ripley, he was not the guy you would want to sleep (or shake hands) with, but he was the character you were always most compelled to watch.
Testament to this is how he salvaged (maybe too strong a word) the comically bleak Along Came Polly with cinema's greatest basketball scene (google 'Hoffman' and 'let it rain', 'rain dance', 'rain drop', 'old school', or any desired combination of these). It was through this unfailing ability as an anti-hero to hold the gaze of the viewer that he refreshed the standards by which we define Hollywood's leading men.
Hoffman confirmed this by winning Best Actor at the 2006 Academy Awards for his portrayal of Truman Capote in Bennett Miller's Capote, which chronicles the crippling research process surrounding the writer's 'non-fiction novel' In Cold Blood, based on the brutal murder of a Kansas family in 1959. Hoffman shrunk from bear to boy for the part, losing over half of his body mass to portray a journalist so annoyingly small, shallow and self-obsessed, that only an actor like Hoffman could make you enjoy watching someone so unlikable.
From Scotty J to Truman Capote, and on to others such as the maligned cult leader Lancaster Dodd in The Master, or his final Broadway role as Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, there is no doubt that Hoffman's characters were terminally uncool. His fictional personas did not stand for success, but rather for the layabouts, the hated, the beaten and the damned. It was for his power to bring us closer to the painful side- the vastly more truthful side- of life in a Western film culture saturated with idealised visions, that he will be fondly remembered.Suggest a correction