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Remembering (and Reconciling) the Brilliance of Philip Seymour Hoffman

The first reactions, unsurprisingly, were shock and sadness. How was this possible? He was so young, so gifted, so on. And then the timelines started to fill with clips, one after another, from over two decades of rich, varied, heartfelt work, and with each new one, his death sounded another little jolt: “Oh God, right, he was in that too.” The cascade of YouTube links confirmed something that we too often took for granted: that Philip Seymour Hoffman was an extraordinary actor — believable, nuanced, intelligent, frequently electrifying. And, above all, versatile; though he had his specialties (the sad sack, the impatient genius, the smug sycophant), this was a guy you never caught giving the same performance twice.

But there was one common thread in his work: he was an actor of remarkable control. Many of his best performances conveyed that control, and even when he played disorderly characters, there was never a fear of Hoffman losing control of them. And that, more than his age or his persona or the sordid details of his death scene, may be the most shocking thing about his passing: that it was so clearly the death of a man who had lost control of a crippling addiction.

The shock of not just that he died, but how he died mirrors the befuddlement that many of us felt last year, when Hoffman checked himself into rehab — not for drinking or popping pills, the more common and PR-friendly addictions, but for snorting heroin. That’s serious business, and indeed, there was a history of addiction dating back to his 20s. But even with that knowledge, the image of the genial Hoffman dead in his bathroom, a needle in his arm, takes the wind out of you — in a way that, say, the similar death of John Belushi didn’t.

And why is that? Because our image of Belushi was of Bluto Blutarsky, the raging party animal; when we think of Philip Seymour Hoffman, we think of his buttoned-up, furiously intelligent Lancaster Dowd from The Master, or his brilliantly cunning Gust Avrakotos in Charlie Wilson’s War, or his withering Truman Capote in Capote (for which he won his Oscar). We can’t reconcile the man capable of those performances with the addiction that took him — which speaks both to the power of the actor, and the power of the addiction.

But there are other performances that hint at those suppressed demons. There is his powerfully quiet work in Love Liza, as a desperately depressed web designer who takes to huffing gasoline fumes after the suicide of his wife. (There are rumors that Hoffman’s relapse may have been brought on by a separation from his partner of 15 years, though this kind of thing is usually a chicken-and-egg situation.) There is his under-appreciated turn in the remarkable Owning Mahowny, the story of a bank manager with an uncontrollable gambling problem; the way his character not only compartmentalizes his addiction but is a joyless slave to it seems, now, enlightening.

But the performance that I keep going back to, in the day or so since this news broke, is his turn as Phil Parma in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia. Anderson worked with Hoffman five times, giving him more diverse beats to play than any actor could ask for, from heartsick desperation in Boogie Nights to grimy danger in Punch-Drunk Love to charismatic deception in The Master. All may have been written for Hoffman, but the sharing of Christian names has always seemed a tip that this Phil, a kind and gentle nurse, was the real Phil. He maintains a cheerfully vulgar repartee with his dying patient (Jason Robards, himself a year from passing), he’s sensitive to the moodiness of his patient’s wildly unstable wife, and when he’s asked to track down the man’s long-lost son, he makes a plea to a stranger on the phone that is so simple, so restrained, but so powerful, it is impossible to forget:

In this big, bold, operatic motion picture, filled with addicts and misogynists and abusers and victims, Hoffman’s Phil is (as Roger Ebert so insightfully noted) a caregiver. He is not the star of the movie; in many scenes, he is a purely reactive character. But he’s never not present — there is always a light, and in many cases, the wetness of tears, in his eyes. Late in the movie, in one of its most important payoffs, Tom Cruise’s character finally comes to visit his estranged father, sits by the man’s bedside, weeps and berates him. Tom Cruise was the biggest movie star in the world when Magnolia came out, and he’s magnificent in the scene — yet every time I’ve seen that movie, I’m not looking at him, but at Philip Seymour Hoffman, who is in the background, often not even in focus. It’s not that he’s upstaging the star (he would never). It’s that he’s so involved in the scene that you cannot take your eyes off him. You never could. That’s what he did well, and that’s what we’re going to miss.

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