Philip Seymour Hoffman was a great force of an actor, an artist who poured so much of himself into his performances that when I heard about his death, I felt like I had lost a member of my family. He was an actor you ended up caring deeply about because of his fearlessness, his gruff twinkle of reality, his utter lack of baloney, and — no small instrument for an actor to possess — the wily fascination of his mind. You always got the feeling that his characters were so interesting because he was interesting, and he saw and understood, as part of his process, their hidden depths.
It turns out that the Oscar-winning actor had hidden depths of his own. He had gone into rehab for drug abuse at 22, shortly after graduating from New York University. He stayed sober for more than two decades but relapsed two years ago with prescription drugs and heroin. Hoffman completed a 10-day stint in rehab last May. His struggle with addiction continued, however. On Feb. 2, the 46-year-old actor died of an apparent overdose, his body discovered in the bathroom of his Greenwich Village apartment with a hypodermic needle in his arm and reportedly at least 50 bags of heroin and five prescription drugs nearby. He left behind three children — son Cooper, 10, and daughters Tallulah, 7, and Willa, 5 — with costume designer Mimi O’Donnell.
Hoffman, born to a judge mother and a Xerox-executive father in Fairport, N.Y., didn’t look like other actors. There was the pale, often scraggly moon face set off by a shock of straw-blond hair that might have been stolen off Paul Williams. The insinuating cut of his lips. The squinty, sly-dog stare. The Gym? What’s a gym? physique that he wore almost proudly, like a doughy chassis of normality. And he didn’t sound like other actors. The voice was somewhere between a scratch and a growl, with just a hint of honey. It wasn’t a relaxed voice, though it sometimes spoke with an exaggerated, almost pent-up calm. It was addled and animated, with a melodic intensity, never more so than when he lowered it, making it soft with private anxiety or delight, so that you wanted to lean in close to catch every glimmer of imputation.
Hoffman may not have been a physically beautiful actor, but he was some-thing more elusive and commanding. He was handsomely ordinary, almost distinctively undistinctive, which is why, from the start, he was drawn to playing deeply unglamorous and even desperate men. In Boogie Nights (1997), he burst onto the screen as the sweetly insecure boom-mic operator, his gut poking out of his ’70s tank tops, who memorably confesses his crush on Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler. Hoffman’s reaction when he’s rebuffed (he gets behind the wheel of his car and starts saying, “I’m a f—in’ idiot” over and over and over again, barking out the words through angry tears) held up a mirror to something that most actors, even great ones, don’t have the daring to reveal: the scrappy, private pain of an utterly overlookable person. There was beauty in the way that Hoffman exposed that pain.
The next year, he shored up his courage as an actor — raised the bar on it, in fact — with his heroically committed performance in Todd Solondz’s Happiness as a pathological wallflower who finds sexual release by making obscene phone calls. It was the kind of character the movies generally treat as a joke or with undisguised contempt, but Hoffman found the humanity in this seemingly irredeemable “perv.” That humanity is all that he saw…in everyone he played.
Just when it looked like he might be cornering the market on timid, badly dressed sad sacks, Hoffman began to demonstrate that he was every bit as good at portraying men of confidence and raw power. He did the same thing for them that he did for dweebs, nailing them from the inside out. I first noticed his gift for making untroubled characters as mesmerizing as those who were defined by their troubles in The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), where he showed up as Freddie Miles, the rich-kid playboy who treats life like a giant champagne bath; Hoffman made you feel the nearly tactile joy of Freddie’s all-American blustery decadence.