Cocooned away from news I couldn’t bring myself to deal with—Philip Seymour Hoffman, dead at 46 of an apparent drug overdose—I went dark. Dark to Twitter and Facebook, dark to my full engagement at a party that was refreshingly Super Bowl–free. I knew the obituaries were coming, but for some reason, the death of this intensely private actor demanded of me the same consideration he gave to his characters: agonized people swaddled in a protective divide.
His complexity made him an unlikely movie star, but Hoffman worked in films big and small, wrestling each one into his personal space. My favorite of his roles is the gambling addict in Owning Mahowny (2003), an indie that deserves a wider viewership. (It will get it now, for all the wrong reasons.) Behind Coke-bottle lenses and an everyguy mustache, Hoffman’s quiet Toronto bank manager begins stealing from his job. At the casino, he lays down towering stacks of chips, gains a fortune and loses it. The dude isn’t a shouter. Barely, we see past his denial into an impossible-to-quench need.
Hoffman’s career is dotted with these studies in brinkmanship. His turns aren’t just high-wire acts—they’re expressly about moments of risk, taken at great personal expense. This was an actor who constantly left you wondering, Oh, no, is he really going there? He is, isn’t he? The first heartbreaking dare came in Boogie Nights, after Hoffman’s Scotty, a doughy, lovestruck hanger-on, realized he was never going to get with Dirk Diggler. Romantically rebuffed, he melts down in his car, the big kiss a disastrous lunge.
Go through the films and you’ll frequently see Hoffman rolling the dice: rousting a dickish Tom Cruise from his perch in Magnolia, leaning in for a smooch with an underage student in Spike Lee’s 25th Hour, extending the lie into a full-on metaphysical ruse in The Master. Hoffman found his greatest acclaim—and an Oscar—for his work in Capote (another elaborately hidden gambler), yet lent cool confrontation to blockbusters, challenging Donald Sutherland’s ferocious president with tricks of his own in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. Forever in memory, Hoffman will always be pushing it a little too far.
It’s not a perfect analogy: I thrilled to Hoffman’s quiet, no-nonsense manager in Moneyball, his goofy personal assistant in The Big Lebowski. But there isn’t a lot of sweetness here. No outsider can claim to understand what Hoffman was lacking, or the impulses and urges that fed his professional success, but invariably, you run up against the colossal tragedy of his loss (police are reporting finding close to 50 bags of heroin in the actor’s West Village apartment), and grief morphs into something angrier.
I can’t pretend that my sole meeting with Hoffman was a profound one; it was at a party for Capote, before the nomination. The actor was unusually open at the bar, talking to critics about his good fortune. Amazingly, it was Hoffman who came over to us, not the other way around. Later on, he bummed a cigarette and a light. In that instant, he was both a star playing the game, doing the expected publicity, but also someone who, you could tell, wanted to be elsewhere.
Follow Joshua Rothkopf on Twitter: @joshrothkopf
View the genius of Philip Seymour Hoffman, our slideshow of some of his finest performances