A very serious loss to our culture.
Two articles on Hoffman – Open Letters Monthly and The New Yorker.
In one of those wonderful old theater stories Laurence Olivier is said to have asked another Hoffman, Dustin, as the younger man voluntarily underwent physical abuse in order to convincingly play a tortured prisoner, “my dear boy, why not try acting?” It was a telling remark. Olivier was the kind of actor who could do just that, just act. But it was obvious from the performances of Philip Seymour Hoffman, a better actor than Olivier in every way, that he was a different breed of artist, one who braved his own depths for each performance, pulling up the anxiety, the megalomania, the manic energy, the deviousness, the sweetness, the ache, and the nervous feeling of being at sea in the world that obviously haunted him in life. We responded to his performances with great love because we’re haunted by the same sensations in ourselves.
He played writers especially well, perhaps because writers also wrestle with those same emotions every day. He was brilliant and relatable and funny in the underrated State and Main, and he was the only actor whose nervous relatability could have sustained our interest in the baggy monster that wasSynecdoche, New York. He was a miracle in The Master and he was a miracle in Capote and he was a miracle in Magnolia, not because he seemed to have conjured his characters from thin air, but because he seemed to have assembled them from within himself. He was them and they were him. And we encountered those performances with a shock of recognition.
As we learn this afternoon that Hoffman died at age 46, we find ourselves amazed that he was so young. He’s given us a lifetime’s worth of work—so many fine performances that there’s an excellent chance his best work has yet to be fully discovered or properly understood. That’s up to us now. Few actors, let alone one so tortured in life, leave themselves such a monument. But we’re all tortured too, and his work is a monument to all of us as well, in all our nervous, nasty, wounded, complex glory.