It’s always tragic when a great talent dies young. The death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman at age 46, however, hits me especially hard. As actors go, Hoffman wasn’t just great. He was a genius. He was the type of dynamic, passionate actor who gave it his all in every role, making even small roles utterly huge. His career happened to coincide largely with my own awakening to the beauty of what cinema could be. I first noticed him when I saw Twister in fifth grade. It sounds silly now, but I remember thinking he was the best part of the film. In high school, he blew me away in films like Magnolia, The Talented Mr. Ripley and Almost Famous. As I eased into a part-time career as a film critic in college and after, Hoffman was a frequent force in some of my favorite films: 25th Hour, Capote, Synecdoche, New York, Moneyball, The Master. His filmography really does read like a greatest hits of the contemporary indie/auteur boom.
My favorite Hoffman film is probably Capote (2005), for which he won the Oscar for best actor. Not only is it his best performance in a career full of exceptional performances, but it’s the performance that I think I’ll remember him by. His take on Truman Capote is so very humane, yet so tortured, like the actor himself. The film itself is cold, bleak and beautiful, set on the harsh plains of my native state (Kansas). Its quiet spirit and yet foreboding nature makes Capote a film that ultimately feels like an elegy to Hoffman’s own life: a artist in pursuit of beauty, committed to excellence and the elusive masterpiece, yet haunted by the immensity of the existential questions he so thoroughly excavated in his work. Like many artists, including some he portrayed–Capote for instance, or Synecdoche‘s Caden Cotard–Hoffman was clearly present in his work, fully immersed to the point that greatness was possible, but not without great personal cost.
We’ll never know what brilliance could have come in Hoffman’s middle and old age, but we do know that he gave the world some beautiful things in his time. I’m thankful for that, and thankful for his life.