Philip Seymour Hoffman did not look like an actor. That was the most alarming and promising thing about him, and now that he is dead, aged 46, in his apartment in New York, of an apparent drug overdose, so many things about him fall into place—if it is a story, instead of a helpless tragedy. He was overweight; he was unkempt; he was blond—which is really not common in actors; he had the quality of seeming blurred sometimes, as if there was such turmoil inside him that he had been unable to settle on a fixed appearance, or a simple presentation of self. It’s one thing to say that he was a very good actor, or brilliant, or a genius; it’s probably far more important to realize how contemptuous he was of those labels and how thoroughly he lived with their inadequacy. Actors are meant to take care of themselves. That is part of the code of being good-looking, an identifiable type or brand, endlessly castable and bankable. Hoffman had never given the least indication of following that code. For several years, it was a matter of wonder what he might do as he grew older after the astonishing luck or rightness of Capote, Synecdoche, New York, The Ides of March, or whatever you might think of.
The first time I saw him, or recall seeing him, was his Freddie in Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr Ripley. That film is meant to be an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith, but it’s more and less. It is the best thing Jude Law may ever do. It was the sure sign that Matt Damon was not going to endure being likeable. And it was Hoffman as this very nasty, menacing, upper-class lout who guesses what a fake Tom Ripley is and promises to be so much trouble that he has to be killed quickly. He’s only on screen for a few minutes in what is a remarkably edgy and uncomfortable film, but he was the sure guide to Minghella’s interest in aberrant male behavior. Even then, knowing the way the movie system worked, one looked at Hoffman and wondered what could he do next, or in ten years. If only he could have gone straight from that film to being an old man. That way, so many of his problems might have been eased or erased.
His Capote was immaculate, dainty, hilarious and desperate. It was apparent that he would get the Oscar straightaway, for it seemed as perilous and complete an impersonation as De Niro doing Raging Bull. But perhaps it was far less of a pretending than we thought. Moreover, Hoffman was good enough an actor, and honest enough as a person, to know that Toby Jones in the other Capote film, Infamous (which really no one saw) was actually better or closer to the real thing. You may disagree with that opinion, but consider the chance that Hoffman believed in it and was the more tormented because of it.
He did stage work, too, but the strains on his constitution may have been all the greater in that situation. Still. he had a great voice and a commanding presence. There must have been a hope that he would be persuaded to emulate a Michael Gambon, say, rather than a Johnny Depp. But so much about him spoke of rebellion or defiance. “Actors don’t look like that”—you know the sentiment and the terrible cast-iron orthodoxy of Hollywood that lies behind it. So Hoffman was on his way to becoming a supporting actor—which is its own rigid slot, Take a look at his Art Howe in Moneyball, the dogged, old-fashioned manager of the Oakland As who simply despises the computerized revolution of the Billy Beane regime. The film is too smug, and too cut and dried. But Hoffman seemed to know and convey how far Beane simply didn’t understand baseball—which was and is an archaic, stupid game. If I’d been Art Howe I would have looked at Moneyball and just marveled at where such genius and understanding had come from.
The history of overweight movie actors is short—but it is glorious: it includes Orson Welles, Marlon Brando and now Philip Seymour Hoffman. The story of this man will spill out in the next few weeks and it will describe a character that every lean actor in the game would start eating for.