His death gave us the mixture of unease and ambushing shock we got from his best performances. There was no modern screen actor like Philip Seymour Hoffman. Pudgy, fair-complexioned and wide-smiling – when he smiled – he was physically the image of a prosperous, well-fed America on the last notch of its belt. We knew better. His acting and choice of roles helped us know better. There is a difference between inner and outer man. The last notch of the belt can disguise the last play of the tether.
Drug and alcohol abuse were a tragic component in Hoffman’s life and, we now learn, his death. Perhaps they were the ghost in the machine of his talent: an intimacy with darkness in the midst of the mummers’ whirl that is showbusiness. The gap between the rehab visits – the first after Hoffman graduated in drama studies at New York University in 1989, the second, according to the actor in interviews last year, in May 2013 – was long and artistically productive. But Hoffman was a heroin user, habitual or relapsed. When found dead by a playwright friend in the bathroom of his Manhattan apartment, Hoffman had a needle stuck in his arm.
It’s a scene that even Todd Solondz or Paul Thomas Anderson would hardly dare to write. Those are the filmmakers who made Philip Seymour Hoffman famous. They must have seen the insecurity, the motes of fear or anxiety, and the gleams of nihilist mischief beneath the bluff exterior.
In Solondz’s Happiness (1998) – an epic chamber drama and perhaps the last great American film of the last century – Hoffman’s scenes as a creepy-pathological nuisance caller are the ones least easy to dislodge from your mind. In Anderson’s Boogie Nights (1997) and Magnolia (1999) he is the fractured smile and feigned or shaky-founded confidence of America, ready to be translated to the phoney-religion guru of 2012’s The Master, Anderson’s barefaced satire on Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.
Born into the 1960s, Hoffman had the hippy-era genes but developed the looks and body of a spawn of the post-Reagan era, flush with seeming health and – in some screen roles – a salesman’s bonhomie. He was good in wheeler-dealer cameos, from a villainous arms dealer in Mission: Impossible III (2006) to a finagling political strategist in George Clooney’s The Ides of March (2011). He was good because we knew there was something a little crazy about this man trying to hold up, or shore up, an empire showing signs of totter.
He did play Willy Loman on stage in Death of a Salesman, for which he was pipped to the Best Actor Tony by Britain’s James Corden in One Man, Two Guvnors. It’s the wages of showbusiness. The showy performance gets the prizes, as Hoffman himself discovered when winning the Best Actor Oscar for his shallowest lead performance. Mimicking the epicene drawl and witchy wit of Truman Capote in Capote (which Toby Jones did no less skilfully in a rival feature film), he was the most garlanded actor of 2005.
You could forgive yourself – or, with hindsight’s regret, not forgive yourself – for missing, on either side of the Oscar success, Hoffman’s deeper, darker turns. He developed a skill, in film after film, at stealing in, stealing a scene, and stealing out again. He was the prying, over-curious, ill-fated friend of the killer hero in The Talented Mr Ripley (1999). He was a blubbery, terrified murder victim himself in the Hannibal Lecter thriller Red Dragon (2002). In longer roles he added substance to showmanship with no loss in definition and design. In his best recent film, A Late Quartet, he was an emotionally vulnerable musician, watching his life begin to come apart as a Beethoven concert performance comes together.
The more Hoffman’s film career went on, the more the filmgoer thought: “This man can do anything.” It’s perhaps a consoling epitaph. In our minds and imaginations he remains the modern American movie actor who never reached the end of his talent to move, to disturb, to reveal, to surprise.