Supremely talented Philip Seymour Hoffman exits far too soon

Philip Seymour Hoffman's legacy deserves better than his death — reportedly in a Manhattan apartment bathroom with a syringe jabbed in his left forearm. The Academy Award-winning actor was discovered Sunday, succumbed to an apparent drug overdose like someone with less to live for. He was 46.

This isn't the blaze of glory or dramatic lingering that a talent like Hoffman should cash out with. This is swift and selfish, as addictions insist. It isn't appropriate for an actor so methodical about his craft, and so generous in sharing his discoveries in an elusive art. Hoffman leaves his partner, Mimi O'Donnell, their three children, colleagues and fans feeling cheated out of so many rich memories to come.

We would prefer believing Hoffman will deliver another in-depth impersonation like his Oscar-winning turn as author Truman Capote in Capote. Or another deft caricature like The Master, a role inspired by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard that earned his fourth Oscar nomination last year. Younger audiences may just be getting acquainted with Hoffman, after his debut as manipulative Plutarch Heavensbee in last year's Catching Fire, continuing the Hunger Games franchise.

The next sequel co-starring Hoffman, Mockingjay — Part 1, is set to be released Nov. 21. Meanwhile, seven days are reported to remain on filming of the final installment, Mockingjay Part 2, due in 2015. There was no word Sunday on whether any were expected to involve Hoffman.

As further proof of his range, he received three Tony nominations for his work on Broadway, including his portrayal of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman.

It's all too sudden and pointless, even by celebrity standards. Hoffman didn't publicly, spectacularly melt down as so many fame fatalities did before him. He was a supremely functioning addict, delivering one sterling performance after another, without tabloids on his trail. Hoffman copped to having drug and alcohol issues during his New York University drama school days but claimed to have gotten sober at 22. Last year, Hoffman reportedly checked himself into rehab for 10 days after relapsing. At the time, tmz.com reported that Hoffman had been snorting heroin and using prescription pills.

The ugliness of Hoffman's death doesn't erase the acting beauty he leaves behind, in performances of singular naturalism, theatrically composed, and often a half-octave or broader gesture away from seriously hamming it up. His gift for eccentrics was evident from the outset, mostly in a burgeoning mid '90s independent film scene. Stockily built and fair-skinned, with a voice that could grumble or mew, Hoffman resisted being typecast by practically being unrecognizable each time on screen.

Hoffman claimed a supporting role in 1992's Scent of a Woman as his turning point, enabling him to quit a job in a New York deli and never work as anything but an actor again. Spotty jobs followed until 1996, when Hoffman nearly upstaged the tornadoes in Twister, and teamed with first-time director Paul Thomas Anderson for a pivotal role as a gambler in Hard Eight. The next year Anderson's stock soared with the '70s porn drama Boogie Nights, featuring Hoffman as a magnetically weird, gay, lovestruck production assistant. An unlikely star was born, on a creative alliance continuing to idiosyncratic effect with Magnolia (1999), Punch-Drunk Love (2002) and finally The Master.

In between was a gallery of affirmed misfits, often characters shuffling and hustling through life, who had seen it all and didn't like much of it. Sometimes that contempt was benevolent: the rock 'n' roll guidance of journalist Lester Bangs in Almost Famous, an offshore DJ in Pirate Radio, and a major league manager in Moneyball. Sometimes it was scheming: an entitled fop in The Talented Mr. Ripley, a political fixer in The Ides of March or a CIA rogue in Charlie Wilson's War. At least one role has cult posterity: His fawning assistant Brandt in The Big Le­bowski was a popular costume at Saturday's Lebowski Fest convention in Tampa.

No matter the role, there was an honesty even in outrageous parts that made Philip Seymour Hoffman a consummate actor, a measure for others in his craft, and a genuine pleasure to watch.

So many memorably realized moments to remember, and a senseless untimely end to regret.

Steve Persall can be reached at persall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.

Supremely talented Philip Seymour Hoffman exits far too soon 02/02/14 [Last modified: Monday, February 3, 2014 11:36am]

© 2014 Tampa Bay Times

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...