6:13 AM EST, February 3, 2014
Philip Seymour Hoffman didn't really steal scenes. He tugged them, slyly, like a man doing a slow-motion rug trick, to his own corner of the action. He did it time after time, across 50-odd feature films and with a consistent presence on the New York stage. (He worked all over the place; he directed "The Long Red Road" at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago in 2010.)
Now he is gone, and we're stuck in a miserable round of nostalgia for a wonderful actor's work.
The Academy Award-winning actor devoted one of his protean lives to the movies, another to the theater, another to his partner (costume designer and director Mimi O'Donnell) and their three children. In a cruelly abbreviated career he brought so many characters into the popular imagination, it's hard to believe we're talking about a single creative artist's efforts.
Certainly Hoffman, who was found dead Sunday morning in his Manhattan apartment of an apparent heroin overdose at the age of 46, wasn't the first actor to take exception to some of his colleagues' blase attitudes toward their profession. Don't sweat it, they'd tell Hoffman. Take it easy. There's no real puzzle, no hidden secret, to acting. It's a game, they'd say.
He'd laugh about it in interviews. The man who won an Oscar for a note-perfect performance as Truman Capote in the 2005 film "Capote" spoke of the tortures of the damned he endured, regularly, when rehearsing or shooting a project. I talked to Hoffman when he came to Chicago in support of "Capote," and he had a way of treating interviews (that one, at least) as a mixture of therapy and gentle, disarming, side-winding confessional.
He told me he was attracted to Capote as a subject because of "the whole issue of celebrity, about living your life as a dichotomy that leads toward a kind of tragic resolution." The words hang heavily today.
Said Hoffman's theatrical colleague and "Long Day's Journey Into Night" director Robert Falls on Sunday, minutes after learning of Hoffman's death:
"He was the greatest actor of his generation — the most versatile, the most powerful. Show me another actor who could play Willy Loman just a few years after what he did for me, as Jamie Tyrone. Show me another actor who could steal every movie he was ever in."
In the benchmark 2003 revival of "Long Day's Journey," which Goodman artistic director Falls staged on Broadway with a cast including Brian Dennehy, Vanessa Redgrave and Robert Sean Leonard, Hoffman tore into the role of an embittered, alcoholic actor originated by Jason Robards as if he had nothing to lose. Falls recalled Sunday that "Phil couldn't shake it. He was acting with these amazing people who'd do this torturous play, and then go home and live their lives. Phil couldn't. He lived that role, and it was hard for him to show up and do it. But when he was onstage for those 41/2 hours, he was alive. And brilliant."
This picture of Hoffman as demon-haunted star with lifelong self-admitted addiction struggles may surprise some moviegoers who came to know the performer a different way, by way of more impish or exuberant roles. For many, it was Hoffman's droll embodiment of moneyed extravagance in "The Talented Mr. Ripley" (1999) that did it. People knew his work by then — he'd already done "Boogie Nights" and "Magnolia" for writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson; "The Master" was their last, strange and wondrous collaboration. But as Freddie Miles in "Mr. Ripley" Hoffman conveyed a devilish delight in conveying that love to an audience.
"Capote" marked a turning point, and not just because he won an Oscar for it. (In a dark irony, he was up against Heath Ledger's beautiful "Brokeback Mountain" performance that year; Ledger died in 2008, also in Manhattan, of a drug-related overdose.) Up until "Capote" Hoffman's innate theatricality could seem bombastic on screen. Hoffman himself acknowledged that when he saw his early screen work years later, it struck him as too much, too big, too everything.
Then, as Capote, one of the most outre roles of Hoffman's career, something magical happened. Hoffman, working with his old friend and director Bennett Miller, discovered real and true subtlety. It was a large performance, and technically meticulous (from voice to walk and back again). But playing Capote Hoffman realized, midshoot, that he'd done his homework so well, he could forget the impersonation angle and concentrate on the moment-to-moment interactions.
"The level of self-criticism while doing 'Capote' was just unbearable," he told me in 2005. "It was trial and error for a long time, well into the first week of shooting, even. And then eventually you hit such a level of self-loathing that you come back up. And things start to come together."
Hoffman was recently at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, accompanying two new films, "A Most Wanted Man" and "God's Pocket." Much, though not all, of his work was completed on the filming of the next two "Hunger Games" films, in which he plays a master game designer with cryptic allegiances.
"Like all the great actors," Falls said Sunday, "he elevated whatever he was doing. And when he took on a leading role, as he did in 'The Master,' there's mystery, sensitivity, wit and vulnerability. Phil was a guy who at a very young age recognized he had the ambition and the talent. This was not a leading man, just an actor of extraordinary abilities. It's an infuriating loss."
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