The news alert that came through my smart phone on Sunday shocked me, as it did innumerable others: Academy Award-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman has died. And like innumerable others, I scoured the Internet for a news source, posted a link on Facebook, and expressed my disbelief and sadness on social networks. The New York Times published a series of Twitter encomiums by fellow actors. Anna Kendrick’s (@AnnaKendrick47) was particularly poignant: “Philip Seymour Hoffman. Unbearably, shockingly, deeply sad. Words fail to describe his life and our loss.”
My own reaction barely warrants a ripple in this tide. Still, I felt compelled to express my sadness, as I feel moved to write this essay. Why? Did I know the man? No.
Or did I?
Bruce Weber, writing in the Times, called Hoffman “perhaps the most ambitious and widely admired American actor of his generation,” a correct assessment, I’d say. He also zeroed in on one of Hoffman’s ineffable gifts as an actor—“his Everyman mien.” In a wildly diverse array of roles, Hoffman embodied each character so completely as to suggest he could be anyone we knew—either in real life, or, in the case of Truman Capote, someone from the pantheon of culture.
As for Hoffman’s complete submersion in the complex soul of that astonishing writer? Who other than he—and this is to take nothing away from Toby Jones’s own splendid performance in the Capote role— could have accomplished that? The voice, the accent, the demeanor, the neurosis.
Don’t take my word for it, though. Take a look at this brief compilation showing some of the characters memorably brought to life by this singular actor.
Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead in a Greenwich Village apartment on Sunday, Feb. 2, a syringe in his arm. Reports indicate he died of an apparent drug overdose.
I cannot speak to the destructive force of drug addiction. No one I have ever known has suffered under that particular curse, and minds more learned than mine will have to weigh in on its insidious power to invade a person’s soul, and the tragic role it played in Hoffman’s life and death. All I know is this: extraordinarily gifted and utterly ordinary people—too many in our society—have been lost to the disease. If Hoffman’s death sparks a meaningful, productive, dialog in our country about drug addiction, then perhaps that’s something. But in the meantime, his family, friends, and colleagues grieve.
His family’s loss is something I can relate to; my father died when I was 13. Is this why I’m so deeply saddened by Hoffman’s sudden, untimely death? Did losing a parent at a vulnerable age condition me to feel losses such as Hoffman’s more deeply?
Or is it the nature of celebrity itself? A movie screen—a thin membrane, really—separates an audience from the larger-than-life inhabitants on the other side. But such is the power of a performer as profoundly talented as Hoffman that he can pierce that barrier, touch our souls, and sear an image into our memory.
And then there’s the fact that film lives forever. Hoffman cannot really be gone, can he? Not when we can log into Netflix, select The Talented Mr. Ripley, and see him right there on the screen of a device we hold in our hands? The intimacy of film, and our ready access to it, is such that we literally carry these performances with us. This is such a gift, and possibly a comfort, but it nevertheless renders an actor as vivid as Hoffman with a familiar quality.
How must that false sense of intimacy feel for a celebrated actor? To know that wherever he goes, whatever he does in his off-screen, off-stage life, he is recognized. Known, but not known. How much of a burden was fame for Hoffman? How much of a burden is it for anyone living a public life?
In trying to answer one question—why am I so saddened by the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman?—I only seem to come up with more questions.
Do we grieve the loss of a man we’ve never met because, like us, he was once anonymous? And, like many of us, he had a dream? And, unlike most of us, he saw that dream realized? Is he our proxy? Those of us who deferred our own dreams, or are waiting to see them come true, feel the icy slap of reality: If we get our heart’s desire, someday it will go away. None of us lives forever. How long, really, might we have to enjoy our dreams made manifest?
The loss of Philip Seymour Hoffman—of anyone in the public eye—is a reminder of our own mortality, writ large.
Or maybe it’s not quite as cosmic as all that. Maybe, for those of us who appreciate art and hold artists in high esteem, it means the end of something great. At the time of his death, Hoffman had three films in varying stages of production—the two-part Mockingjay films from the Hunger Games franchise, and a documentary about autism. It is unclear what his death will mean for their respective releases, but suffice to say that after any of these films come out, we will never again see a new performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman.
There will be no more, and we will want more.