When I first heard the rumblings of Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s death, I was at work, browsing through my daily list of websites (/Film, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Gawker, and various social media outlets). As the voices across the web became louder, and his death wasn’t some TMZ scam to increase their viewership, I felt only one thing.
The first Phillip Seymour Hoffman film I remember seeing was Boogie Nights. I was probably fourteen or fifteen, looking for something to fall asleep to on TV. I vividly remember this scene for one reason. I couldn’t explain it or put it into words at the time, but years later I could finally conceptualize it. He added such depth to a supporting character; such raw emotion, fragility. I was more intrigued by his character than anyone else in the film. I didn’t go to sleep that night until very late. I was almost late for school the next morning.
Throughout his career in film and theater, he always seemed to be entranced by the characters; by their interactions and idiosyncrasies, most of which he created for them. Capote, the film in which he played the great author and essayist Truman Capote — and subsequently won Best Actor in 2005, was the film in which I truly became incapsulated with his work. I was working on a Senior Thesis for Capote’s novel, In Cold Blood, and I wanted something visual to show my class. As I watched it at home, trying to decide which scene to show, it became more and more difficult as the film progressed. I watched it at least three times before I could decide.
I ended up with this.
This scene made me fall in love with filmmaking, with acting, and the process actors take to become their characters. The only comparison that can be made to this man is Daniel Day Lewis.
One key difference between them is Hoffman’s choice of films. From Brandt in The Big Lewbowski; to Lester Bangs in Almost Famous; to Father Brendan Flynn in Doubt; to Owen Davian in Mission Impossible: III. Each of these diverse characters given life in their own respective way. After watching these films, these are the characters you remember most. They break through the monotony of archetypes, and show you that these characters aren’t as they typically seem.
I went to a Film Retrospective this past weekend honoring Hoffman. A few speakers from an addiction clinic — where the proceeds were going — talked about their love for him as an actor. As one man began speaking about him, tears started flushing his eyes like a dam about to burst open. I have a thing about people mourning those they don’t know; you can be mournful, yes, but don’t cry. You didn’t know the person, his family, his favorite writers, his faults.
In a way, I understood his pain. In a way, we all knew Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Through his films and plays, we understood how much respect he had for his characters, performing to the best of his ability in order to give them due diligence.
In a way, he was like a pen pal, writing each of us notes through the screens of theaters across the country. He was taken from this life way too soon.
Luckily, he still has some notes to send to us. Watch his films again, and a different letter will be written.
Rest in peace.