Remembering Philip Seymour Hoffman: An uncomfortable soul

The actor excelled at playing deeply troubled characters.

Posted by David Z. Morris on Sun, Feb 2, 2014 at 4:48 PM

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Actor Philip Seymour Hoffman has been found dead of an apparent drug overdose. Hoffman was a gifted character actor who managed to straddle the big-budget realm of blockbusters like Mission: Impossible III, easy-going comedies like Almost Famous and The Big Lebowski, and challenging  art-house flicks like Magnolia. He received the Academy Award for Best Actor for 2005’s Capote.

Recent reports indicated that Hoffman had been struggling with longstanding substance abuse problems, which could come as a surprise to those who only knew him in passing. We expect our drug overdose victims to be beautiful, gangly boys like Heath Ledger or Kurt Cobain, and for them to wear on their sleeve a sneering, heartbroken cynicism that they can only escape through a romance with the needle or the bottle.

Hoffman wasn’t one of those, physically or in his public profile. He was quick to smile, and his soft edges could make him easily mistakable for one of the amiable big men who lend easy contrast to the work of more serious, usually skinnier actors. But anyone paying attention knew that his soul was sharp and uncomfortable.

Hoffman often played subordinates and betas, quiet men who served and kowtowed to others — but his characters always struggled mightily with their position, choking on their pride rather than swallowing it. My favorite Hoffman role will always be as the perverse Allen from Happiness, whose spiritual destitution, and tendency to extract revenge on innocents, make us both loathe and empathize with him. Those reactions, thanks to Hoffman’s harrowing work, don’t balance into sentimental mush, but do battle from diametrically opposed and irreconcilable ends of our own moral compass.

Maybe it’s too easy to project morality onto a disease like addiction, but Hoffman’s preoccupation with the lowly, quiet, weak and abused suggests a view of the world or of himself with self-obliteration as a darkly logical endpoint. Regardless of his habits or his end, he deserves a place alongside Klaus Kinski and John Cassavettes as deeply committed spelunkers of some of the darkest corners of human existence.

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