Philip Seymour Hoffman Let His Characters Speak

Hoffman gave audiences transcendent supporting roles in everything from Boogie Nights to Almost Famous to Charlie Wilson’s War Francois Duhamel/Universal Pictures via Kobal Collection

There’s a scene in the overlooked 2003 film Owning Mahowny that tragically portends the final scene in the life of Philip Seymour Hoffman, who played the movie’s titular character. A compulsive gambler, Dan Mahowny finds himself up $9 million in one mad night at an Atlantic City casino when a bellhop approaches and begs him to exit a winner.

“Look, you did it,” the bellhop, Bernie, says. “You got ‘em by the balls. Look, I’m telling you, man, please just pick up, walk. Right now.”

“I can’t do that,” Mahowny, breathing heavily, says. “Bernie, I just got here.”

It’s a compelling peek at addiction, and Hofman, sadly, was too familiar with that disease. The Oscar-winning actor, 46, was found dead in his Greenwich Village apartment on Sunday afternoon, the victim of an apparent heroin overdose. To the legions of fans who loved Hoffman for his transcendent supporting roles in everything from Boogie Nights to Almost Famous to Charlie Wilson’s War, Hoffman appears to have been sitting atop a huge pile of chips. He was not only constantly working, but his work was universally acclaimed. He had three children and more than enough money to live comfortably, but he could still walk freely (and unbothered) through his West Village neighborhood.

Last May, Hoffman checked himself into rehab for heroin abuse, after reportedly having been clean for more than two decades. In a 2006 interview with 60 Minutes, he copped to having become addicted to drugs soon after graduating from New York University in 1989. “It was all that drugs and alcohol, yeah,” he said. “It was anything that I could get my hands on. I liked it all.”

Hoffman was the consummate character actor of his generation, along with the likes of Paul Giamatti, also 46, and Sam Rockwell, 45. It is an ironic term, “character actor,” almost ignorant of its redundancy. However, it implies a person better-known for inhabiting the roles of the people he or she plays than someone who runs on the fumes of his or her own celebrity. It is, in the end, a right-handed compliment, conveying more praise than its author might have intended.

Praise that Hoffman earned. His best-known characters were not so much loners as lonely, awkward and sad and all too aware of the limits of their physical appeal. “I’m a fucking idiot,” Scotty says in Boogie Nights after making the world’s lamest pass at porn star Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg).

As seminal rock-and-roll journalist Lester Bangs in Almost Famous, most of Hoffman’s scenes are with him alone in his apartment, offering advice to his pubescent protege, Bill Miller. “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone else when we're uncool,” says Bangs, in what will probably be remembered as the most quotable line Hoffman ever uttered in character.

And yet, Hoffman possessed tremendous range. As often as you can picture him as the pale-skinned, doughy, amoral creep—in films such as Scent of a Woman, Happiness and The Talented Mr. Ripley—he could just as easily inhabit other kinds of skin. In Charlie Wilson’s War he played veteran CIA agent Gust Avrakotos, a spy possessed of all the nuanced charm of a bowl of five-alarm chili. In this memorable scene, he pulls the ripcord on his career at the expense of his boss (John Slattery) to tremendous comedic effect.

Furthermore, in every scene in that film, Gust Avratakos does not look like we expect Philip Seymour Hoffman to look, doesn’t sound like we expect Philip Seymour Hoffman to sound, and doesn’t act the way we expect Philip Seymour Hoffman to act. It’s an illuminating piece of work.

Hoffman was born in Rochester, N.Y., but like Truman Capote, whom he portrayed in the eponymous 2005 film—a performance that earned him a Best Actor Oscar—Hoffman migrated to New York City. His adult life was spent there. Also like Capote, he was an artist whose genius occluded his more self-destructive elements. Capote died of complications due to alcoholism in 1984 at the age of 59.

Hoffman still had a plethora of scenes to shoot, of characters to inhabit. Instead, he is gone, his final scene played out in a bout of knowing self-destruction. He couldn’t just pick up, walk.

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