I never met Philip Seymour Hoffman. I’ve seen him in 11 movies. I saw him on TV at Knicks games.
But I sure felt like I knew him when I heard he died. When I read this tweet, I audibly gasped. I went through the emotions related to death one would go through for someone they knew; I was shocked, hoping it wasn’t true. I constantly refreshed twitter waiting for more news. I thought about what he had done with his life, the movies he was in. I remembered some of my favorite moments with him. I guess I cried a little bit, over someone I never knew and knew little about. Then I went to youtube and typed in his name. His acting flexibility was simply astounding.
There are so many aspects of Hoffman’s death one could touch on. From an alleged drug problem, to all his acting roles big and small, to the three kids he left behind. But I think it is easiest to understand another’s death by first trying to understand yourself.
I first got really into movies around three years ago. After I had gathered a list and watched a lot of great movies, I started to understand which filmmakers I really liked, including a frequent collaborator of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Thomas Anderson. It’s tough to describe why I like Paul Thomas Anderson in the same way that I’m not sure why I like Philip Seymour Hoffman. Both have a distinctive style, almost a mark of quality. If they’re involved in something, you know there was a lot of work put into it. I think they’re both able to convey something serious and dramatic while having an underlying comedy to it. The opposite is true as well. Both are able to present a comedic front to something that should be dramatic.
Take this scene from Magnolia. Hoffman plays a nurse taking care of a dying man who desperately wants to see his son one last time. Hoffman is trying to track him down. This is inherently dramatic, dealing with death and fractured relationships, but there’s also a sort of comedy that Hoffman and Anderson bring to this scene that makes it complicated and interesting. Hoffman tries to convince the man on the phone to help him out because what he is saying is true (it’s not real, this is all happening in a fictional movie). He tells the man that this is the the type of stuff that only happens in movies (this is only happening in a movie). These meta-references keep the tone a little lighter than the situation calls for.
It is this ability to play dramatic and comedic not only in separate movies as different characters (this allows Hoffman to play a man who poops his pants in “Along Came Polly” and also play a power hunger, control freak, cult leader in “The Master”), but also allowed him to play rich, complex characters with true depth.
Ultimately, the characters he played gave Hoffman himself a sort of depth. I felt like I knew Scotty J. and Lester Bangs. Hoffman played his characters so true, that Lester Bangs almost feels like a part of him. Certainly, Hoffman was a veteran actor just as Bangs was a veteran writer. The way Bangs talks to William Miller, you know he’s seen a lot of stuff and had some bad stuff happen to him and he’s more than happy to make sure someone he likes doesn’t encounter those same tough problems. It’s so easy to imagine that Hoffman knew exactly what Bangs’ motivations were and how he lived because he felt a deep connection to him. Lester Bangs, of course, was a real person. He died of a drug overdose.
Scotty J, while something of a comic relief character in “Boogie Nights,” feels just as real. After failing to come on to Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler, he sits in his car and sobs, telling himself repeatedly how much of an idiot he is. The scene feels so real. Maybe it really is Philip Seymour Hoffman himself, seeing a completely unobtainable goal, sitting in his car and sobbing uncontrollably.
I never really noticed that Philip Seymour Hoffman was a Knicks fan, like me, until my mom pointed it out while she saw me watching a game. He was sitting courtside, likely with one or more of his children. And when I saw him there, I felt like I knew him because I was so familiar with his characters. Of course Philip Seymour Hoffman was a Knicks fan. His characters are frequently hopelessly lame or uncool, the Knicks are a complete, hopeless mess. And yet I root for them. I don’t know why. I don’t know why an audience would like Philip Seymour Hoffman in “Along Came Polly,” as a character who pooped his pants in public (as I look at Twitter, this seems to be the first role people think of when they think about him, or his role in “The Big Lebowski”), I don’t know why I root for an unlikable Knicks team with no future. Maybe it’s because there’s something funny or entertaining about being lame and uncool. Maybe I relate so much to the lameness of this particular iteration of the Knicks, that I can’t help but root for them. Maybe Philip Seymour Hoffman felt this way too, as an uncool person.
I will always appreciate Philip Seymour Hoffman’s work as an actor. I will definitely watch (maybe sometime soon) “The Big Lebowski” and “Synecdoche, New York” again. I will watch movies with him and admire his talent. I don’t know if I will always root for the Knicks, but Philip Seymour Hoffman did and maybe it’s simply because it gave him joy. Maybe, when he sat courtside, he forgot about the lame past and the hopeless future of this basketball team, and just wanted to cheer for them to win because seeing someone win is good. Philip Seymour Hoffman lost a battle with drug addiction, passing away Feb. 2, 2014.
Kevin Chalek is a sophomore majoring in chemistry.