Remembering Philip Seymour Hoffman

Remembering Philip Seymour Hoffman

He was not afraid to be eccentric. If anything, he embraced it.

Portly with red hair, he was not a leading man and by no means was he a movie star: he was an actor who lived for his craft.

I first remember him as Lester Bangs in Almost Famous. Who can forget how the camera pans in on him at the radio studio as he passionately extolls the virtues of The Guess Who over The Doors? Watching him rock out to Iggy Pop (his fingers frantically playing air guitar, banging his head wildly) you think, "this is a guy I could be friends with".

Years later I saw Boogie Nights for the first time. An ensemble drama set in the porn industry, Paul Thomas Anderson's film features a star-studded cast including Mark Wahlberg, Julianne Moore and Burt Reynolds. Hoffman starred as Scotty J., the awkward boom operator who develops feelings for Wahlberg's character. His vulnerability is sweet and genuine. Had any other character played Scotty J., he would have arguably turned him into a caricature, but Hoffman's acting saved him from that fate.

Because of his damn good ability to act, it comes as no surprise Paul Thomas Anderson cast him again and again. Following his role in Boogie Nights, they teamed up for Magnolia, where Hoffman played a nurse with a heart of gold. Most recently he played Lancaster Dodd, a character partially based on L. Ron Hubbard in the controversial masterpiece, The Master. All three projects were unconventional at best, but Hoffman had the ability to act the hell out his roles while still making it accessible to the populace.

Paul Thomas Anderson was quoted as saying:

He does still surprise me and he makes me hungry to work with him and see what he does and comes up with. [The Master] was something that I came up with because I wanted to spend more time with him. We’d worked together a lot, five times. But it was never enough. It was a supporting part or something like that. It never felt like we’d gotten super dirty enough together." 

2010's Jack Goes Boating saw Hoffman play the titular role as a limo driver trying to win the heart of the awkward but sweet Connie. There are scenes from that film that still stick with me. The trailer, set to "White Winter Hymnal" by the Fleet Foxes, acts as a moving prelude, a tantalizing aperitif: we immediately want to follow Jack on his story, and the closing shot of him in a rowboat, fading out to the chorus of the song, is bucolic at best.

I am not familiar with Hoffman, but I wanted to be and felt that I could be. I feel we all felt that way about him. Addiction does not care who you are, it does not pick and choose, its seductive power can claim anyone at any moment of time. It's important not to judge, not to point fingers, but to offer support, to build a network, to let that person know they are loved and needed. It takes strength and courage to reach out and to ask for help in our struggles, but we should never isolate others or feel isolated because of our adversities.

"Great art is about guilt and longing..." 

Lester Bangs tells William Miller in Almost Famous. And it's true: the artist's life is one of constant death and rebirth. It takes courage to put yourself out there no matter what medium, but I hope what Hoffman's artistic legacy can teach us that it's worth the risk, that this ability to transcend ego and access the fire that burns within us can help others discover that same passion within themselves. We shouldn't be afraid of our own voice, nor should we be afraid to wave our freak flag. Hoffman was eccentric, but he was always himself. He will be greatly missed.


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