Rob Edelman: Philip Seymour Hoffman

Feb 17, 2014

Like so many of us, I was shocked and saddened to learn of the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman. To be felled by a drug overdose and to pass away at such a young age certainly is tragic. Granted, we frequently are hit with headlines regarding the demises of famous and often beloved movie folk. But this one somehow seemed different.

For one thing, I received quite a few emails from friends regarding Hoffman. These emails were not solicited. These individuals were expressing a need to discuss their feelings about Hoffman.

To state the obvious, Philip Seymour Hoffman was an extraordinary talent. If you did not get to see him onstage, you can explore his screen work. For example, take a look at Hoffman's very different performances in three very different films. They are CAPOTE, for which he won a deserved Best Actor Academy Award playing Truman Capote; THE MASTER, in which he was riveting as the creepy title character; and MONEYBALL, in which he played Art Howe, manager of the Oakland A's. As I say, three different films... Three different roles... Three different performances that, taken together, are textbooks for great screen acting-- and for Hoffman's astonishing versatility.

But there was more to Philip Seymour Hoffman. Much more. As one of my friends observed, "This is an artist, a person who did not buy into cult-of-personality/celebrity. It made his process real. As it should be. An example and a high bar for all artists across all disciplines." My friend continued, "I genuinely think that people across the spectrum are upset because they understand his authenticity [and] giftedness-- a rare commodity in this narcissistic culture, where all the goals and incentives are upside down and backwards!" My friend, who lives in Manhattan, added: "I used to see him hanging out in Washington Square Park with his first child, sitting on the ground, playing. A real person. One of my dear friends' child[ren] used to attend school with his first-born. We appreciated him and his contributions, as an artist and as a regular human being."

As for me, I remember seeing Hoffman on a couple of occasions at press conferences. What struck me was his attire. He would be wearing not just a tee-shirt but what appeared to be an old one: one that was anything but stylish. What this told me was that Hoffman was not obsessed with or even concerned about "dressing up" for the media. Primarily, he was an actor: a working actor, rather than a "star" or "celebrity."

But like it or not, he was a star and, right now, because of his death, drug addiction and drug overdoses suddenly are all over the news. The media-related cynicism in me makes me think that this now is a "hot" story because an Oscar-winner overdosed. Sadly, thousands of others share his fate-- but this pretty much is ignored. Right now, this is front page stuff, but in a few weeks it likely will be forgotten because it will be perceived as "yesterday's news." This is very depressing. But this is our 21st-century culture.

Here is one final point. My wife Audrey also teaches film studies at the University at Albany. A couple days after Hoffman's death, one of her students put forth the notion that we will not get to see and savor any future Philip Seymour Hoffman performances-- and this is tragic. Audrey agreed. But she quickly noted that Hoffman's three young children now will have to grow up without their father. This is the real tragedy.

Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.

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