“Life’s pretty funny when you’re objectively on the outside looking at it.” – Philip Seymour Hoffman
American actor Philip Seymour Hoffman is regarded by many as one of the greatest of his generation. Hoffman proved his undeniable versatility throughout his illustrious career, with powerhouse performances in films such as Capote and Synecdoche, New York. The actor earned several awards and nominations for his work, including the Academy Award for Best Actor. On what is the 7th anniversary of his untimely demise, we revisit Philip Seymour Hoffman’s life and oeuvre as a tribute to his accomplishments.
Born in Rochester, New York in 1967, Hoffman grew up enjoying sporting activities like wrestling and basketball. His parents split up when he was nine-years-old, resulting in his mother being the primary guardian of the children. She was the one who instilled a lifelong passion for the performing arts in Hoffman by taking him to see local theatrical productions. When a young Hoffman saw a rendition of Arthur Miller’s celebrated play All My Sons, he was completely mesmerised. Much later in his career, Hoffman recalled: “I was changed – permanently changed – by that experience. It was like a miracle to me.” At the age of 14, he had to discontinue sports for a while after a serious neck injury and decided to focus on acting instead. He was encouraged by his mother to join a drama club, and he discovered his true calling in life. Even though he initially joined the club because he had a crush on one of the members, Hoffman became passionate about acting and studied at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in order to expand his knowledge about his chosen art form while supporting himself by working as an usher.
After graduating from NYU in 1989, Hoffman worked off-Broadway and took on various customer service jobs to make a living. Although he made his screen debut in a 1991 Law & Order episode, he would secure his first major role in 1992 film Scent of a Woman alongside Al Pacino and Chris O’Donnell. The film earned $134 million worldwide and helped Hoffman gain critical attention for his work, prompting him to quit his job at a deli to fully focus on acting. He considered the theatre a vital part of his acting career and continued to appear in multiple stage productions, but Hoffman’s film portfolio also began growing, with supporting roles in works like 1994 effort Nobody’s Fool where he got the opportunity to collaborate with his childhood icon Paul Newman. Hoffman was cast by Paul Thomas Anderson in his debut feature Hard Eight (1996) because the burgeoning filmmaker was impressed by Hoffman’s acting in Scent of a Woman, marking the beginning of a long and fruitful partnership.
Anderson would work with Hoffman on several other projects, including Boogie Nights, Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love but Anderson would bring out the best of Hoffman’s talents only in 2012 when he paired the actor with Joaquin Phoenix in The Master. The director was blown away by Hoffman’s capacity to shine:
“There is just nothing he can’t do. Growing up, all I wanted to do was make films. Never in my fantasy did I see anybody that looked like Phil Hoffman being a part of that picture. But here we are, and somewhere along the way I found this actor who I just think can do anything. He’s capable of so much that you can throw anything at him.”
During this early period in Hoffman’s blooming career, he also worked with other notable filmmakers who helped him elevate his work. He appeared in the Coen brothers’ seminal cult-classic The Big Lebowski on 1998 and also took on an experimental role in Todd Solondz’s black comedy Happiness the same year where he played a misanthropic pervert who harasses women over the phone. In a remarkably crude turn of events, he can be seen vigorously masturbating while engaging in one such conversation which prompted critics to rightly applaud him for his honest depiction of human depravity. Hoffman said of the role, “That wasn’t easy. It’s hard to sit in your boxers and jerk off in front of people for three hours. I was pretty heavy, and I was afraid that people would laugh at me. Todd said they might laugh, but they won’t laugh at you. He saw what we were working for, which was the pathos of the moment. Sometimes, acting is a really private thing that you do for the world.” He maintained the momentum of 1998 with increasingly powerful performances in 1999, reuniting with Anderson in Magnolia and played an upper-class snob in one of the most critically acclaimed and commercially successful projects of Hoffman’s illustrious career: The Talented Mr. Ripley.
Around this time, Hoffman appeared in numerous stage productions like a revival of Sam Shepard’s True West alongside John C. Reilly which earned him a Tony Award nomination. He also appeared on a production of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull with the likes of Meryl Streep and Natalie Portman. Hoffman won accolades for his directorial work as well, spearheading multiple stage productions in this period which helped him improve both as an actor and a director. His on-screen persona kept developing with each new project’s unique roles, including a role model/snarky music journalist in Cameron Crowe’s 2000 cult classic Almost Famous and an introverted, creepy English teacher in Spike Lee’s 25th Hour (2002) who has a crush on his 17-year-old student. However, his real breakthrough came in 2005 when he was cast by Bennett Miller as the prolific American writer Truman Capote. Hoffman was finally awarded a role that allowed him to explore the dizzying heights of performance art, receiving widespread acclaim for his forceful performance and bagging the Academy Award for Best Actor. He later revealed, “Playing Capote took a lot of concentration. I prepared for four and a half months. I read and listened to his voice and watched videos of him on TV.”
Hoffman would continue to deliver Academy-Award nominated performances in films like Charlie Wilson’s War in 2007 and, a year later, in Doubt. However, his standout work during this period was probably the lead role in Charlie Kaufman’s beautifully confusing classic Synecdoche, New York. He played a frustrated theatre director who keeps working on his magnum opus until he is replaced by a minor character in the fiction of his life. Combined with Kaufman’s surreal and tragic screenwriting, Hoffman translated the cascading sadness of the theatre of the absurd to the cinematic medium. Praising the wonderfully absurd script, Hoffman said, “Yeah, it is different. It’s a challenge set out before you that’s really exciting, you know? There’s a lot to do in that film. You know, there’s a lot of things that happen in that film. And to go through all those – to really go through a man’s life like that – I mean, it was really something. To really experience everything in such a full scope. It’s intense.” The final years of Hoffman’s career were marked by more wonderful efforts, like his portrayal of Willy Loman in a Broadway revival of Death of a Salesman and his final collaboration with Paul Thomas Anderson: The Master.
The actor had struggled with substance abuse in his college days and relapsed in 2013. Although he attended rehab that year, Hoffman was found dead in a friend’s bathroom on February 2nd, 2014. The official reports state that he died of an overdose caused by a mixture of various drugs, including heroin, cocaine and tranquillisers. One of the final performances in Hoffman’s career came in the 2014 adaptation of John le Carré’s novel A Most Wanted Man. While speaking of Hoffman’s intelligence and how it weighed on the actor, le Carré said:
“It was painful and exhausting work, and probably in the end his undoing. The world was too bright for him to handle.“