Along Came Polly, a quirky romantic comedy released in 2004 with Ben Stiller, Jennifer Aniston and Debra Messing, wasn’t super memorable. While the headliners brought in a few laughs when I saw it in the theater, the antics of Sandy Lyle, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, a crude and embarrassing goof who slipped on the floor of a basketball court, falling down awkwardly mid-sentence and getting back up with a dopey smile, made the audience roar with laughter three times the volume than their laughs for Stiller, Aniston or Messing. The movie itself may not have been memorable, but Hoffman’s performance stayed with me for 11 years.
I didn’t know who this guy was, but I knew I fucking loved him.
Hoffman, who became a household name after winning the Best Actor Oscar for his role as Truman Capote in Capote, was unarguably a comedic genius. I started following him, tuning in to all his movies, and before he got super famous I told my boyfriend, “This is the most talented male actor out there.”
It wasn’t until I saw Love Liza (2002) that I discovered the depth of Hoffman’s gift for dramatic acting, a gift as poignant as his comedic talent. The small-budget independent film—written by Hoffman’s brother Gordy Hoffman—wasn’t seen by many. In the film, Hoffman’s character Wilson Joel loses his wife to suicide and develops a gnarly addiction to gasoline in the aftermath. He starts inhaling the stuff compulsively from a handkerchief, losing more and more control as the movie progresses—eerily mirroring the addiction to heroin that led to Hoffman’s untimely death. His ability to restrain himself for most of the movie and then break into raw emotion when necessary demonstrated his exceptional control.
You never saw Philip Seymour Hoffman act. He was the character, he embodied the role, never over-indulgent or over-the-top except when the story required it.
So he could do comedy and he could do drama. So he had a range unlike any actor of his day. The spectrum of his talent was already evident by 2004, with offbeat supporting roles under his belt in films like Boogie Nights (1997), the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski (1998), Magnolia (1999), and Todd Sololondz’s disturbing but hilarious Happiness (2000). Then came Punch Drunk Love (2002), where he played an sadistic red-neck wearing a beat-up baseball cap and threatening to shoot Adam Sandler with a shotgun.
I thought I’d seen his best—and then there was Capote. Hoffman reflected all Capote’s nuances sublimely, losing tons of weight and not stepping out of character once while filming the movie. Of course the critics agreed.
When I learned of Hoffman’s passing, I was shocked—you might as well have told me the president had been shot. While sad for him, I lamented mostly the brilliance that had been yet to come, the roles he would never play that only he could play. Why some of the best artistic talents end up succumbing to lethal addictions or lethal mental illness isn’t clear to me, there is of course an established link between artistic brilliance and madness.
My Facebook feed was overloaded with links to Hoffman’s death. Friends changed their profile pics to his headshot. People posted quotes from Capote. The whole world was in mourning.
Hoffman started battling heroin addiction after graduating from NYU, but as he felt himself spinning out of control, he seemingly got clean right away. He meant business, and kicked the habit for 23 years. Then came a day in 2012 when, for a reason we do not know, he went for the needle again. Afterward, he checked himself into rehab because he worried he was on the verge of an “epic collapse.” Not even two years later he wound up dead with 73 bags of heroin in his possession, locked up in his apartment in Greenwich Village.
The news disturbed me deeply. I kept thinking about him, alone in that apartment, how money, success and fame meant nothing in the face of that insidious addiction. We all know that darkness, that despair, that aloneness and the terror of knowing you’re killing yourself but not being able stop it, even if you want to stop it. It’s plain old addiction, and it’s an equal opportunity destroyer.
We can continue to be sad, continue to mourn the artistic breakthroughs he would have gifted us with had he not passed, but the truth is the wealth of his prolific acting career left us with more than most actors, despite his early death at 46. We have an exceptional collection of performances to watch and re-watch and re-watch again. That is, in my opinion, what we should remember.
Photo courtesy of HollywoodWire