Fuse Appreciation: Philip Seymour Hoffman

In his performances, Philip Seymour Hoffman was able to give enormous depth to the loners, the scoundrels, the lost, the villainous, and the heartbroken.

The late Philip Seymour Hoffman

The late Philip Seymour Hoffman

By Rob Ribera

Yesterday morning, Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead of an apparent drug overdose in his New York City apartment. As the predictably sad story of addiction goes, this time was one time too many. It is a terrible shame — a loss for his family and young children, and a stark reminder of dependency’s terrible toll. This time, addiction stole away one of the finest actors of this or any other generation. He brought his talents both to the screen and the stage, acting in dozens of films in his twenty-five year career, and serving as artistic director of the LAByrinth Theater Company in New York. As a leading man, a character actor, a director, we can only imagine what great work was to come.

There is a single moment, common in many of Hoffman’s best performances, when he simply stops speaking, his head slightly nodding in anger, shame, or defeat, his eyes glassy but unwavering, his voice sucked out of him as if in a vacuum. In these moments, you could see the power of Hoffman the actor, and it was evident even when he was playing a character that was powerless. That was his gift. He brought humanity and humility to his work in ways that few other actors dared. As a gay boom operator for porn films, Scotty in Boogie Nights, his pain was simultaneously palpable and comic. As a hopelessly lost suburbanite in Todd Haynes’ Happiness, his shame and frustration was repulsive and pitiable. In Synecdoche, NY, his obsession became your own, even if you struggled to understand it. As the second violinist in A Late Quartet, jealousy burst out of him. The list goes on and on. You probably never wanted to be any of the characters he played, but for me there was always something in his characterizations that I could relate to. You didn’t have to suffer like his characters, or be trapped in the same situation. None of that mattered because Hoffman gave enormous depth to the loners, the scoundrels, the lost, the villainous, and the heartbroken.

In the winter of 1999 I turned seventeen years old and, now being able to see R-rated movies at the suburban multiplex, I could experience something more than the usual popcorn fare. One of the first films I saw was Magnolia, Paul Thomas Anderson’s sprawling Los Angeles epic. The film is brimming with incredible performances, but for me, Hoffman’s role as Phil Parma held it all together. A caretaker for a dying man, Parma attempts to connect him to his estranged son, putting himself at the center of a family drama that apparently involves the entire city. There is a moment in the film when he is slapped across the face for meddling with such weighty affairs, and in a matter of seconds you see an amazing range of emotions — pity, anger, sadness, confusion — wash over him, tears welling up in his eyes. From that moment, I knew that I would try to see everything that Hoffman was in.

When preparing this piece, I started to write down all of the films I wanted to highlight in Hoffman’s career. After a minute or so, I realized that I was jotting down nearly every film he has been in. He was a supreme character actor, using his short time on screen to make any film he was in better. From Red Dragon to Twister, he made each of his roles memorable. But the actor will perhaps be best remembered for his performance as Truman Capote in Bennet Miller’s 2005 film, which earned him an Academy Award. In a radical departure from his usually unkempt characters, Hoffman was compact, exacting, quiet, and manipulative. In Doubt, he did the impossible by having us both believe in and revile his character. Charlie Wilson’s War proffers one of the greatest put-down scenes of the last few years, courtesy of Aaron Sorkin’s twisty dialogue. Never has a string of obscenities and the act of smashing a window seemed so cathartic.

There is much, much more to appreciate. The Savages is a personal favorite, as is Love Liza. In The Master, Hoffman played the straight role to Joaquin Phoenix’s much showier part, but with plenty of askew energy. In Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, he showed us how macho intensity can mask deep desperation. And that brings up another thing: Hoffman worked with the greats. Anderson, Lumet, Miller, Corbijn, Nichols, these directors all knew how to channel his best work. He even directed himself, in 2010’s Jack Goes Boating. Each role was different, each film made brighter by his presence.

As music critic Lester Bangs in Cameron Crowe’s 2000 film Almost Famous, Hoffman tells a young music journalist, after just being rejected by a group of people he thought loved him, “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.” Hoffman shared his ‘uncool’ talent with us for too brief a time. Whatever personal demons he had, whether he brought them to the screen or on stage with him or whether he, you know, just acted —- none of that is particularly important. He has left behind an irreplaceable body of work that is unparalleled in his generation. Just last week, two of his new films premiered at Sundance, he filmed a pilot for Showtime, and his next directorial effort was announced. It is a small comfort to know that we will have Hoffman’s creative presence around for some precious time longer.

Rob Ribera is a filmmaker and music video director in Boston. He is the co-creator of the music website Sleepovershows.com, and is currently working on his PhD.in American Studies at Boston University.


  1. MW on February 3, 2014 at 12:48 pm

    In Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Hoffman plays a man whose life is spiraling out of control, including addiction. I thought of that performance a lot yesterday. : /

  2. Shelley on February 13, 2014 at 11:56 am

    To continue MW’s point, when I looked over Hoffman’s body of work, I was struck by how many of the characters he chose to play were on the edge of addiction or mental problems….Demons have to be kept carefully, carefully in balance.

  3. Steven J Fromm on March 19, 2014 at 9:01 am

    Rob, very well done piece on this enormously talented actor. Why I applaud his professional life, it is important to look with an uncritical eye at addiction and how it can be a devastating affliction on a person and his family..

    Here is my take on this horrendous problem. Most people really do not grasp what is really going on with this disease. It is clear that after decades of sobriety, it can be gone in a nano-second. This is not a surprise to those exposed to how this disease operates.

    The only way to really understand this horrible and insidious disease of addiction is to go to AA or Nar-Anon meetings to see what is really going on here. This exercise would offer a tremendous perspective about this deadly problem. It is often said that this is a progressive disease that results in insanity and ultimately death.

    It should also be pointed out that the only proven salvation to date is through a continuous and never ending 12 step program that allows those afflicted to find spirituality and a higher power.

    Additionally and very importantly, readers may want to see the devastating financial and legal impact on his family by reading Philip Seymour Hoffman: Estate Planning Lessons For Us and Especially Women

    I hope this is of value to your readers.

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