Philip Seymour Hoffman’s ‘terminal uncertainty’

The death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman has spawned a mix of feelings among fans and followers of his work: grief over the loss, sadness over the work never to be seen, bafflement over the senselessness of his death—or at least, what we who have the good fortune of being able to pronounce it senseless can experience as bafflement. Why would someone with such skill and so vast an array of good work already to his credit, not to mention three children of his own and the knowledge one acquires over the course of forty-six years, engage in activity so reckless? Because even though young enough to promise so much more, and old enough to know better, he was nonetheless troubled enough to continue to seek relief in something he’d struggled with for decades.

Aside from the ugly little lecture from Ben Shapiro at The National Review, the appreciations have mainly and generously focused on the breadth and consistently high quality of Hoffman’s work in movies and theater. And what’s remarkable is just how much of it there is—fifty films in twenty-five years, from the amazing stuff in Paul Thomas Anderson films dating from Hard Eight through Boogie Nights, Magnolia (clip below), Punch-Drunk Love and 2012’s The Master (reviewed in Commonweal by Richard Alleva); to his depictions of real figures like Art Howe (he played Art Howe!) in Moneyball (reviewed in Commonweal by Alleva), Lester Bangs in Almost Famous, and of course the eponymous author in Capote (reviewed in Commonweal by Rand Richards Cooper), for which he won an Academy Award. He appeared in indies like Next Stop Wonderland and Happiness and blockbusters like The Hunger Games and Mission Impossible III. For an entire still-thriving subculture he’ll forever be the obsequious Brandt from The Big Lebowski. And then there’s the stage work: his duet with John C. Reilly in the 2000 production of Sam Shepard’s True West, his performance as Jamie in 2003’s Long Day’s Journey into Night (reviewed here for Commonweal by Celia Wren), his directing and acting with the Labyrinth Theater Company.

Two passages describing Hoffman’s work have jumped out at me in putting this post together; one appears in the headline, and it comes from Ben Brantley’s New York Times review of Hoffman’s last appearance on Broadway, as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman: “Mr. Hoffman does terminal uncertainty better than practically anyone, and he’s terrific in showing the doubt that crumples Willy just when he’s trying to sell his own brand of all-American optimism.” The other is from Richard Alleva’s review in Commonweal of the 2009 film Doubt: “When it comes to ambiguity, no actor is better than Philip Seymour Hoffman. He conveys … creepiness and possible saintliness not just by turns but simultaneously in a portrait that is downright cubistic.”

“Uncertainty” and “cubistic,” and for good measure throw in Lee Siegel’s “beautiful helplessness” from his New Yorker remembrance. All somehow fitting in tribute—but how unfortunate they have to be summoned this way at all.

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Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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