Remembering Philip Seymour Hoffman

February 6, 2014 1 Comment


I didn’t know Philip Seymour Hoffman.  I knew nothing of his private life and never sought out much information about it.  So why would the news of his death hit me with an emotional kick in the stomach?

Actors share parts of themselves to create worlds  for us that we might not otherwise experience.  Some achieve this with a persona (real or imaginary) that is revealed regardless of the character portrayed.  John Wayne, James Stewart, Al Pacino or Morgan Freeman built careers doing so.  Even in the films where they “played against type” (John Wayne in “The Searchers”), they always possessed an identifiable “type” to play against.

Listing the films of Philip Seymour Hoffman underscore an incredible range of roles usually described as “character acting.”   His performances are linked  by undercurrent tones of sadness and intensity,tinged with a weariness  that he either pulled from the character or, sadly, added from himself.  Paul Thomas Anderson wisely cast him in “Boogie Nights”,  “Magnolia” and the recent masterpiece “The Master.”  He won an Oscar for his portrayal of Truman Capote.   His memorable roles in “Almost Famous”, “The Savages”, “Synechedoche, New York” could not have been played by anyone else.

The news of  his death was chilling and tragic because it was not a movie.  All the details are painful and pathetic as they recount the story of a life spiraling out of control.  What will happen to the latest “Hunger Games” movie now, the media wonders?  How many packets of heroin were in his apartment?  Did you hear how he was found?  We once again feel like spectators given permission to watch, but this is no performance.  Why do we feel we should know?

Philip Seymour Hoffman possessed the ability to create movie magic.  His song “Slow Boat to China” at the end of “The Master” is riveting.  His quiet portrayal of the nurse who attends to the dying Jason Robards anchors the entire film with a sense of grace and dignity.  And on and on.

It seems both reassuring and unfair that we will continue to experience the magic he has left behind for us, although our appreciation will forever be undercut by  sadness.

This is one of those times when I really do wish there were movies in heaven.

Jolyn Wagner






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One Comment to “Remembering Philip Seymour Hoffman”
  1. Bruce Russell says:

    I don’t have much to say here; you’ve eloquently said a lot. But I’m not sure we “feel we should know” what went on prior to his death. I think we WANT to know because if it was as suicide we want to understand why HE would kill himself. Was it an accidental overdose? Or was he in such despair that he did not want to go on? That’s the question that puzzles us. Didn’t he have everything anyone could want: money, fame, meaningful and creative work? Didn’t his children love him? Did he not have a lover at the time? Even so, didn’t all those other good things in his life outweigh that fact? I heard he was full of self-doubt and sometimes lacked confidence. How could that be, Philip Seymour Hoffman, famous actor? Despair is blind. Sure, our despair isn’t. We really have reason to be full of self-doubt and have a pessimistic view of our futures. But we want to understand why HIS was blind…all the better to contrast it with our rational despair. Or so we tell ourselves.

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