More so than most actors, Philip Seymour Hoffman mined every part of his being: his body, his breathing and, above all, whatever dark energy drove him. He poured those elements into indelible portraits of losers, mountebanks and doomed fools. He wormed his way deep into the cultural mind’s eye. How deep? You can almost picture his final moments in life. You want to look away…but can’t you see it? The slumped hump of a back. We hear mumbling, punctuated by bone-deep sighs. The shuffling, almost shackled gait. The face turns to the mirror, eyes squint apologetically, lips clamp tight against rage. See the premature wrinkles, the stubble, the mat of hair, the fingers fumbling with a comically small bag. This was the only performance Hoffman gave that I hated. I’m glad I never saw it.
What I did have the good luck to witness (besides the genius film turns) were six stage appearances, beginning with the Broadway revival of True West in 2000 and ending with his awesome Willy Loman in the Mike Nichols–directed Death of a Salesman two years ago. In between there was a Konstantin in The Seagull in Central Park (2001); a James Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night (2003); the title part in the wry chamber drama Jack Goes Boating(2007; he later starred in and directed a film version); and the Public Theater’s modern-dress Othello (2009), directed by Peter Sellars, in which he played Iago. Three shows on Broadway and three Off. It seemed there was nothing he couldn’t do.
It’s funny, because Hoffman wasn’t what you’d call a chameleon. He didn’t mess around with makeup or high-concept approaches. His work was subterranean; it bubbled up. Sometimes there were little burps that hinted at pressures far beneath. Sometimes the character’s rage (or yes, joy) exploded like a geyser. He would draw you in with vocal delivery that was offhand and casual—and then let rip with an emotional outburst that made him red in the face. It was almost a good-cop-bad-cop act from the bottom of a self-warring psyche.
Because his acting combined roiling interior energy with brute emotional force, he exerted a gravitational effect. You could not, as the cliché goes, take your eyes off of him. Whether he was fuming over the typewriter as his drifter brother taunted him in True West, or sitting in his boss’s office being forced out of his livelihood in Salesman, or tearing into Othello as if it had come off the printer that day, Hoffman made acting seem like work, but in the best possible way. His characters struggled and suffered.
Although in many films he played creeps, the picture was more complicated when it came to theater. Hoffman portrayed deeply flawed characters, but there was always a certain amount of joy and boyish innocence in them. His James Tyrone had a lust for life that shone through alcoholism and filial resentment. The rawness of his Iago almost made you believe that the villain’s evil sprang from a genuine sense of hurt and love for Othello. And in Jack Goes Boating, Hoffman played a genuinely decent fellow, albeit a very withdrawn one. In his complex inventorying of human nature, love always mingled with anger.
If Hoffman had confined his stage gigs to acting, he’d have left a legendary body of work. But he was a total man of the theater, most notably in his coleadership of the Labyrinth Theater Company in its most fervid years. He directed its best plays: Jesus Hopped the “A” Train, Our Lady of 121st Street, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot and The Little Flower of East Orange—all by Stephen Adly Guirgis. His performers blazed with outrage, lust, a yearning to escape. Life felt more vibrant after you left one of Hoffman’s Labyrinth productions.
In 2003, Jason Zinoman and I refereed a “Thespian Smackdown,” intending to determine who was the greatest current NYC stage actor. Hoffman won. Here’s the final line from our section on him: “In the future, we want to see his Willy Loman, his Marty and—yes, eventually—his James Tyrone Sr.” We predicted one correctly, but one is not enough. I don’t want to picture his death. I want to picture him in all the great roles he never got to play.
Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote
In 2003, Time Out New York set out to crown the king of a new golden age of stage acting. Hoffman won the battle, with former Theater editor Jason Zinoman and current editor David Cote noting, “Schreiber and Wright can’t touch Hoffman for complex, naturalistic performance.… Hoffman is an explosive actor who can reinterpret the great roles of American drama.” Read our full appreciation, reprinted from the May 29, 2003 issue, below.
If you know Hoffman only from his film roles, you might think he’s an actor of a single type: nebbishy, passive and a little bit creepy. But Hoffman the theater actor is a whole different animal. Onstage, he unloads his full arsenal of gifts, blowing us away with a gallery of indelible images: True West’s macho bully Lee pouring beer on himself; The Seagull’s pretentious artiste, Konstantin, curling up in his mother’s arms; the troll-like Gene slinking out of the closet in The Author’s Voice.
Schreiber may be our leading Shakespearean, and his upcoming Henry V in Central Park will be the theatrical event of the summer. But he’s been hampered by appearing in too many mediocre vehicles (Broadway’s uninspired Betrayal, Andrei Serban’s sloppy Hamlet); great actors are remembered for great productions. And though Wright may be the most hypnotizing of the three—put the trio onstage together and your eye would invariably wander toward him—he often outshines his own characters. For Hoffman, the play is the thing. As his Our Lady of 121st Street collaborator Stephen Adly Guirgis puts it, “He never cheats.” He doesn’t depend on gimmicks, excess stage business or physical tics. Hoffman has moved us in so many different ways that he’s earned the title Greatest of His Generation.