At an apartment in Greenwich Village, at some point during the early hours of the 2nd of February, Philip Seymour Hoffman prepared his heroin. He probably heated it with his stove underneath the charred spoon that was found by the authorities the next morning. He went into the bathroom where he injected himself and then he never woke up. And that was the end for the finest actor of the last 20 years.
Hoffman was born on the 23rd of July 1967 in New York and took up acting after an injury forced him to give up wrestling. He went to theatre school at the New York State summer school and then graduated from the Tisch School of the Arts with a BFA in drama in 1989. His breakthrough role came in Scent of a Woman in 1992, where he appeared alongside Al Pacino, and he went on to become a regular collaborator with the likes of Paul Thomas Anderson and the Coen Brothers.
In many ways, he was the actor’s actor. He often played supporting roles, which could let the other actors around him improve their work. In Mission Impossible III, a pretty unremarkable action sequel, he plays the sadistic antagonist, which transformed the film into a fan favourite that is still enjoyed eight years later. Along Came Polly is a formulaic romantic comedy that was elevated by his supporting role. The basketball scene with Hoffman’s character shouting ‘Let it Raaaaiiiin!’ is still considered the film’s best.
Yet it was Paul Thomas Anderson who knew how to get the most out of Hoffman. In Boogie Nights, Hoffman falls in love with Mark Wahlberg, culminating in an awkward, difficult to watch scene where he kisses him before being pushed away. There has never been an actor who has acted drunk as well as Hoffman. When he says to himself ‘I’m a fucking idiot’ with slurred bravado, the character’s tragicomic nature is revealed.
He won an Oscar for playing Truman Capote in ‘Capote,’ one of his first leading roles. His impression of Capote’s voice and cool, relaxed demeanour was startlingly accurate. In The Master, he plays an L Ron Hubbard figure. His charismatic performance was perfect. Other actors would have overplayed it but Hoffman’s strength was his subtlety. Somehow, he stole every scene with his drawling voice and cool smile. It was believable that a cult could start around this man.
Now that Philip Seymour Hoffman is no longer with us, a void has been left. There really is nobody else up to his standard in the roles he played. He continues a history of great Hollywood character actors taken too soon. John Cazale, who played Fredo Corleone in the Godfather films, died at 42 from cancer. Montgomery Clift too, dead at 45 from a heart attack brought about by excessive drug use.
In twenty years time, Hoffman, will still be regarded as one of the great losses to cinema and theatre. He deserves all the plaudits and all the outlandish ‘finest actor of the last 20 years’ rhetoric.