It was approaching half past six on Sunday evening when my best friend text me “Phillip Seymour Hoffman found dead according to Wall Street Journal”. I always remember these texts. I remember the “Jacko dead!” text from my Aunty Lizzie five years ago and I remember the “Tony Soprano has died” text my brother sent me last October. Discovering death through text is unnatural and deeply incongruous – packing such dreadful meaning into a pocket of data, stripping the event down to the names and dates. Yet the news of Hoffman’s passing had an added effect I hadn’t encountered before. Complete disbelief. Even as the news reports multiplied and the details of his heroin overdose fell into narrative alignment, I struggled to imagine it.
I wasn’t alone, the collective response to Hoffman’s death seems to have been one of sudden disquiet, a communal reaction that transcended ‘shock’ into a sense of genuine injustice. Granted the main reason for this reaction was probably the circumstances of his death, as he was described in many reports as being found with a hypodermic needle still in his arm. Yet I’d argue it is more than that. It was his stature. In every single one of his performances, be it Brandt in The Big Lebowski or the titular lead in Capote, he was so assured and so completely in command. It is hard to imagine that a human being so masterful and adept at performance was suffering or vulnerable at all.
Reflecting on his passing there were two performances that came to mind. Firstly, and most obviously in control, was his turn as Lancaster Dodd in The Master. It is a sure and excellent film altogether, yet Hoffman’s performance is the one that centres it and drives it – giving both the viewer and Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell an emotional focal point. One scene resounds above many others, as the leader of cultish quasi-religion ‘The Cause’ Dodd comes under a grilling from a sceptic. Through a fracturing facade of calm Dodd responds “If you already know the answers to your questions then why ask…” before erupting “PIG FUCK” shortly and sharply. The Master, Lancaster Dodd barely shows any anger again in the entire film, it is a splinter of moment in which Hoffman was able to incorporate swathes of brilliant anger and shadows of vulnerability.
The second film that came to mind was Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut, Synechdoche, New York. It is a sprawling and reflective film in which Hoffman plays the lead Caden Cotard – a theatre director given an unlimited ‘genius grant’ with which he sets about building a scaled metropolis inside a warehouse. Gradually the theatre of reality grows and before long it is a microcosm of real-time life being improvised 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. For me the effectiveness is how Hoffman manages to take Kaufman’s surreal Jungian epic and provide a relatable and completely human performance. It is a film that qualifies Hoffman’s unique ability to play unknowable characters in such a way that, despite their idiosyncrasies and quirks, draw you in and allow a connection. Trawling through YouTube clips of his performances, as I did on Sunday night, I was faced with the now most painfully poignant scene in the whole film. “I will be dying and so will you, and so will everyone here. That’s what I want to explore. We’re all hurtling towards death, yet here we are for the moment, alive. Each of us knowing we’re going to die, each of us secretly believing we won’t.”