BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD: Remembering Philip Seymour Hoffman

HoffmanZSuch sad and awful news. So sad and awful, in fact, that part of me couldn’t really face marking or commenting on it. Since first hearing the tragic report yesterday, I’ve been stunned, hoping the news proved to be a hoax (as most of us did when the news spread like wildfire on the Interwebs and social media). And frankly, like the exhaustion that always seemed to set in when one of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s indelible characters was confronted with inevitable, insurmountable emotional odds, I just didn’t think I had the heart. But ultimately, I guess I just felt the need and the necessity to formally acknowledge Hoffman’s death yesterday, at age 46, of an apparent drug overdose in his Greenwich Village apartment.

Hoffman with his Oscar for "Capote" at the Academy Awards in Los Angeles, 2006.

Hoffman with his Oscar for “Capote” at the Academy Awards in Los Angeles, 2006.

Hoffman has been my favorite actor since the ’70s heyday of loose-cannons and character actors who became unorthodox leading men: guys like Jack Nicholson, Dennis Hopper, Dustin Hoffman, and Al Pacino (and his cohort John Casale). Hoffman was — it’s surreal to use the past tense here — a vastly versatile actor who could play seemingly any role, and do it with an outwardly rumpled, but internally razor-sharp edge of anxious unpredictability; a soulful if skewed empathy and pathos for his subjects (which, in turn, triggered a similar emotional response from us for his characters); and a flawed humanity that somehow always felt real, and at times discomfortingly familiar.

Hoffman in his Oscar-winning portraying of author Truman Capote in "Capote""

Hoffman in his Oscar-winning portraying of author Truman Capote in “Capote””

Philip Seymour Hoffman embraced noble striving amid human fallibility, and embodied an epic failing that all too often seemed inevitable (in life too, apparently, as on stage and screen). To me he was a true throwback to a time when stories and characters made movies instead of explosions and special effects. I loved the guy’s work and style, absolutely. But it is no overstatement for me to say he was supremely superb in virtually everything he touched, whether his role was large or small, big budget Hollywood or labor-of-love indie. On-screen, the pained, pudgy-faced Hoffman gave everything to his characters that his feverish mind, clammy demeanor, and starchy body — a matted paste of reddish-blonde hair set atop a schlumpy posture and dumpy frame that looked to have been built on a foundation of cheese fries and bad takeout — could possibly muster.

Let It Blurt: Hoffman  as legendary rock critic Lester Bangs in the movie he steals, "Almost Famous."

Let It Blurt: Hoffman as legendary rock critic Lester Bangs in the movie he steals, “Almost Famous.”

People talk, and rightly so, about Hoffman’s three Tony nominations and his Oscar win for his terrific performance as the title character in “Capote.” Or his early star turn as a pathetic porn industry hanger-on obsessed with outlandishly endowed star Dirk Diggler  in “Boogie Nights.” Or his dead-on portrayal of rock critic Lester Bangs  in the otherwise overrated groupie bauble, “Almost Famous” (his moments on screen were by far the best thing about the movie). But there were so, so many performances to choose from, and at least we can take some small measure of comfort in that.

As a compulsive gambler with a lot to hide in the overlooked "Owning Mahowny."

As a compulsive gambler with a lot to hide in the overlooked “Owning Mahowny.”

Hoffman left behind not just a remarkably rich and deep body of work, but a legacy and template for all actors to emulate, and audiences to measure as hallmarks of a great performance. He was always at his best in the incisive character and story-driven films that used to be staples in the maverick, and now-vanished, “Easy Riders and Raging Bulls” era that defined ’70s American cinema. If you haven’t yet gotten around to seeing them, I would strongly urge you to check out the beautiful bummers of  “Happiness,” “Love Liza,” “Owning Mahowny,” “Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead,” “Doubt,” and “The Savages” for a few (okay, six) examples of Hoffman’s very best work in some very fine, quietly harrowing films. In most of his movies, the better Hoffman is, the more uncomfortable you are watching him. But you can’t help but be compelled to.

America's sweatiest, and best, actor in "Happiness."

America’s sweatiest, and best, actor in “Happiness.”

He was not a gorgeously glamorous, larger-than-life movie star on the red carpet, or chiseled action-figure scenery chewer given to comic-book melodrama. In fact, what he was not is precisely what made Hoffman so consistently, absolutely believable as a real-life presence on film. For me, Hoffman was always, easily, the most interesting person to watch on the screen.

Instead of great hair, he had charisma. Instead of  a sturdy jaw and blinding white teeth he projected a keenly penetrating intelligence clumsily wrapped in awkward social graces. Instead of six-pack abs (none of his beleaguered characters had the free time nor will to work out, after all), he was all lumpy, put-upon perfection.

As Scotty in "Boogie Nights," the film that made Hoffman a star character actor.

As Scotty in “Boogie Nights,” the film that made Hoffman a star character actor.

Once asked by a local magazine I wrote for to name a few of my favorite things, I immediately thought of Hoffman and called him “perhaps America’s sweatiest, and best, actor.” And the disheveled, anxious, world-is-caving-in-on-me sense of futility and essential loserdom he brought to his most memorable roles was a major part of his Everyman appeal.

Hoffman just about gives up in "Love Liza."

Hoffman on the brink in “Love Liza.”

But in truth, of course, as gifted as he was, Hoffman was anything but a futile failure. He was an accomplished actor of stage and screen, at the artistic pinnacle of his profession. I remember reading a profile on him a few years ago where it was suggested he may have been the only actor to actually make his “Doubt” co-star, Meryl Streep, nervous, and possibly even a bit threatened as a professional competitor for the public’s attention (not an emotion, I’m guessing, the multiple Oscar winner Streep experienced too often). In the piece, an upbeat and slightly surprised Hoffman chuckled and cheerfully laughed off his co-star’s attempts to get inside his head and rattle him. As anxious and filled with uneasy dread as many of his characters could be, Hoffman sounded serenely aware of his own prodigious talents; calmly confident and eminently comfortable in his own sweaty skin. Or so it seemed.

With Ethan Hawke in "Before The Devil Knows You're Dead."

With Ethan Hawke in “Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead.”

I remember reading that, and being comforted and gratified to know that, unless he walked away (or suddenly became stricken with Al Pacino shouting-as-acting-shorthand disease), I’d likely be watching Hoffman make good films great, and great films greater — and maybe even legendary — for probably another 30 or 40 years.

Now I know that’s not going to happen. And just like the profound effect Philip Seymour Hoffman has had on me so many times before over the years, the stark reality and sorrowful totality of his final performance is beginning to sink in ever more deeply.

A very entertaining and loving compilation of moments and clips from Phil’s career here:

Hoffman’s “Love Liza” clip here:

Hoffman IS legendary rock critic Lester Bangs in “Almost Famous.” Here he counsels aspiring teenage rock critic Cameron Crowe:

Hoffman as Scotty J., the pathetic porn industry gofer who falls in love with star Dirk Diggler. Watch a scene here:

Hoffman clip from “Owning Mahowny”:



  1. Excellent piece and tribute to such a great actor and sadly troubled person. Thank you Jon.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This really is a loss, and you make it clear why–and beautifully.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. His best movies are listed. I’m glad to know others liked his less than typical hollywood personas as much as I did. Well written. Sincerely, Your brother’s ex.

    Liked by 1 person

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