February 2, 2014

On Philip Seymour Hoffman

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Written by: Mitch Salem
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Philip Seymour Hoffman, now ridiculously,  shockingly dead at 46, had two films at Sundance this year, and as will always happen, the way one thinks of those movies changes in the light of this awful event.

Neither film, the John LeCarre adaptation A MOST WANTED MAN or John Slattery’s feature directing debut GOD’S POCKET, received standout reviews, but both will be seen in theaters (Most Wanted Man was produced by Lionsgate and God’s Pocket was bought by IFC during the festival), and largely that’s because of Hoffman’s presence–he was the main star in each production.  Hoffman was a throwback to a 1970s style of stardom, a leading man who was also a character actor of dazzling range.  Dustin Hoffman is now in his fifth decade of that kind of career, working non-stop at 76 years old, and that’s what this Hoffman should have had as well–for his sake, and for ours.

Over the next hours, days, months and years, there will no doubt be any number of inquiries into and purported explanations of the demons that drove Hoffman, despite his huge success, to the (publicly acknowledged) drug abuse that seems to have been the cause of his death.  In truth, none of us will really understand why a man who could deftly maneuver between Oscar-winning roles like CAPOTE and Hollywood blockbusters like the HUNGER GAMES franchise, balancing both without damaging his popularity or his reputation, could be compelled to destroy himself like this.  In God’s Pocket he plays a desperate man who drinks too much, and in A Most Wanted Man, he is a German spy who believes himself to be in control of the complex events around him, only to discover in the last few minutes that he was always a patsy, always at the mercy of forces more clever and ruthless than he.  Wanted Man is a cold movie overall, but Hoffman brings a powerful heartbreak to that moment of plot twist, a sense of someone all too familiar with a trap opening up at his feet.  Perhaps, in his case, it was a trap he set for himself.

Professionally, at least, Hoffman was almost faultless.  After a few years playing small parts in movies like TWISTER and SCENT OF A WOMAN, he had his breakout when he connected with the writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson, who cast him in HARD EIGHT in 1996, and a year later gave him the role of the lovesick porn technician Scottie J in BOOGIE NIGHTS.  Hoffman and Anderson did spectacular work together, following that pair with MAGNOLIA, PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE and THE MASTER, each man perfectly attuned to the other’s artistic wavelength.  Hoffman had superb taste in projects and a hunger to work with the best, and those roles with Anderson propelled him to work with great filmmakers like the Coen Brothers on THE BIG LEBOWSKI, Anthony Minghella on THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY (and then again on COLD MOUNTAIN), Spike Lee on THE 25TH HOUR, Mike Nichols on CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR, Sidney Lumet on BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD, and in perhaps his finest supporting role, as Lester Bangs in Cameron Crowe’s ALMOST FAMOUS.

Seemingly boundless in his artistic ambition, Hoffman was also a dedicated man of the theater, a founder and co-artistic director of the Labyrinth Theater Company and praised recently for his spectacular Willy Loman in Mike Nichols’ revival of DEATH OF A SALESMAN.  He had moved into film directing himself with JACK GOES BOATING, and casting had just been announced for his next film as director.  He had also just recently stepped into his first prestige TV series, Showtime’s HAPPYISH.

It’s a cliche to say, after the death of a celebrity, that he “will be missed.”  But for decades to come there will be an yawning space on movie screens, on stages and on every other entertainment platform where Philip Seymour Hoffman should have been to provide great work.  His absence tragically lessens the arts he loved.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."