Retrospective: Philip Seymour Hoffman

Phillip Seymour Hoffman

I was shocked when my friend told me Sunday morning that Philip Seymour Hoffman had died of an apparent heroin overdose. There is something about these public figures that make us feel as if we own a piece of them, as if we know them somehow, even though we don’t know anything. I saw him once on a shuttle at Sundance. I was in the audience when he gave the Q&A for his directorial debut, Jack Goes Boating (in which he also acted). My husband said he seemed diffident, retreating into the shadows onstage. I don’t remember.

He reminds me of two different friends I have. His voice has the chilling quality of John Malkovich‘s. I could imagine him as anyone–he could be almost anyone. His role in Capote was different from his role in The Savages was different from his role in Jack Goes Boating. But his characters were always complicated. Seemed deeply considered. Conceived rather than stumbled upon. I watched Philip Seymour Hoffman before I knew he was Philip Seymour Hoffman. He was that talented side character who looked distractingly familiar and could play anyone in any movie (The Big Lebowski, Happiness, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Almost Famous, Cold Mountain)–mincing or tough, shy or cruel, despicable or vulnerable. And then that performance in Capote. Not quite a breakout since he wasn’t unknown, but the Oscar-winning role that established him forever in the Hollywood firmament.

I was gratified that, despite fame and fortune, he has always been committed to independent film, beginning his work with the Sundance Institute in 1998 with the film Montana, the same year that The Big Lebowski and Happiness came out. (Happiness was the first indie movie I ever watched knowing it was an indie movie; it was the one that hooked me.) Since then, he has acted in ten Sundance films, including two from this year: John Slattery‘s God’s Pocket and Anton Corbijn‘s A Most Wanted Man. Unfortunately, we missed them both.

Hoffman leaves behind three children. RIP.