Philip Seymour Hoffman
The premature death of Philip Seymour Hoffman robs us of one of the great screen actors
I met Philip Seymour Hoffman 17 months ago at the Venice Film Festival, a few hours before the world premiere of his new film, The Master. He was giving interviews at the Excelsior, a grand, temple-like hotel with ash-pink walls and sand-white lintels, and for three-quarters of an hour, we sat and talked about the film, his career and life in general.
Hoffman, who died on Sunday aged 46 from a suspected drug overdose, was not an actor whose name, in the Hollywood parlance, could "open a film": that is to say, you never saw lines of teenagers outside the local multiplex chattering excitedly about "the new Philip Seymour Hoffman movie".
But he was one of the great screen actors of his generation: a consistent marvel in supporting roles and, towards the end of his life, iconic as a lead. He won an Oscar for playing Truman Capote in the 2005 biopic directed by Bennett Miller, and was nominated for three more, for The Master, Doubt and Charlie Wilson's War.
His stock-in-trade was the gruff, cynical slug; a persona he burrowed into, in films like The Ides of March and Moneyball, like a dog nuzzling its way under a blanket. To regular cinema-goers, he was a frequent and comforting presence, improving every film he appeared in. But his face, with those marshmallowy cheeks, and caterpillar eyebrows, and shaggy beard that came and went as the roles required it, was familiar to almost anyone who had seen an American movie – a good American movie, at least – in the past 20 years. What he would achieve in the next 20 years, and the 20 after that, felt like a treasure hoard yet to be unearthed.
Perhaps that is why, when the news of Hoffman's death broke on Sunday evening, and I thought back to our meeting in Venice, I felt not straightforward sadness, but a burning, uncomprehending sense of having been cheated. When an actor passes on – or film-maker, or musician, or writer, or any other artist – whose work touched us personally, we always feel a sense of personal loss, even if we had only encountered them within the work itself.
But in the case of Hoffman – or Heath Ledger, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Amy Winehouse, Janis Joplin, Egon Schiele, Sylvia Plath, and countless others – there is a further sense of fate itself having been thwarted; a story of creativity left unfinished in the middle of its most gripping passage.
The full extent of Hoffman's talent only struck me that day in the Excelsior, when I first saw him ambling towards my table across the floor of the hotel's ornate Sala Stucchi. He was 45, stodgy and bear-like, and half-raised a hand cheerfully in greeting before lowering himself into his chair with a satisfied humph.
The man in front of me was irreconcilable with Lancaster Dodd, his character in The Master: the fastidious, combustible leader of a cult-like organisation called The Cause, loosely based on L Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology. But nor was there anything to be seen of the tortured artiste; the kind of man we picture in our heads when a talented, successful actor is found on his bathroom floor, surrounded by drug paraphernalia.
Instead, he looked like an American tourist. He wore a faded olive baseball cap and a striped brown polo shirt with an oily splotch or two on the front, baggy jeans and a pair of trainers. He was bright-eyed and upbeat, and was particularly excited about the news that he had just accepted the part of Plutarch Heavensbee, a wily spin doctor, in the forthcoming Hunger Games film, Catching Fire.
"My son is about to turn 10," he told me, "so I bought him the books and I'm going to read them with him, if for no other reason than it's the first time I've made a film that's suitable for him."
He also spoke about his desire to direct again (his first film as director, a small, neat romantic drama called Jack Goes Boating, was released in 2010), and also to do more stage acting, which had been his first love. He was a man who was looking forward to future busyness of all types, and the films he was yet to make seemed to stretch off towards infinity. You would have sworn he was here for the long haul.
Reconciling this with the fact that he died, as now seems likely, with heroin in his veins, is hard; although perhaps that person I met in Venice, the modest, avuncular actor happy to discuss any subject I threw at him, was another Hoffman character, and the forces that drove him to drug abuse were something he kept buried deep down, accessing them as required for his work.
As an actor, Hoffman was an analyst of human frailty, and he showed us men, puffed-up and broken-down alike, who lived their lives half-hypnotised by their own drives and desires. In the end, he was a professional actor for 23 years, exactly half of his life; just long enough, in the end, for him to leave us with two of the greatest performances in the history of cinema.
The first came in 2008, in Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York, in which he played Caden Cotard, a theatre director who is given a grant to pursue a wildly ambitious work.
Caden stages an improvised play inside an abandoned warehouse that is based on his own life, and the production grows so impossibly elaborate and intricate that he becomes lost in it, shuffling through a grey area between truth and fiction half-pathetically and half-defiantly, in a way that only Hoffman could, until the curtain finally falls.
The second came in 2012 in The Master. To play Lancaster Dodd, Hoffman drew, both consciously and hungrily, on the grand old American tradition of charlatanism: you can trace a direct line back from his performance as Dodd to Orson Welles, cinema's original trickster, and the only other actor you can imagine doing justice to the role.
But where other actors – even Welles, perhaps – might have been tempted to start big in the role and remain there, Hoffman served us the character in morsels, and the scenes that linger in your mind are not the moments of bombast, perfectly performed though they are, but the ones of vulnerability.
Towards the film's end, he croons, with heart-stopping delicacy, the Frank Loesser song Slow Boat to China: the audience for this performance is Freddie Quell, a former naval officer played by Joaquin Phoenix, who becomes Dodd's fiercest acolyte and possibly also the love of his life.
And yet Hoffman won his Oscar before both of these films, for playing the writer Truman Capote in a 2005 biopic directed by Bennett Miller. Until that point, Hoffman's career had been gathering pace with such certainty, that when he bashfully took to the stage to collect the prize, in early 2006, you were sure that more would follow – which, now, they will not.
All grief springs from selfishness to an extent, but when we mourn an artist we never met, the grief comes to us co-mingled with greed. Most of us haven't really lost Hoffman at all: what we have lost is more Hoffman.
And so we must make do with the Hoffman in our cinemas and on our DVD shelves, where he remains as close to us as he ever was, and where the great work he did will outlive him, and us. Art can cheat death like that, just as death all too often cheats art.
Robbie Collin is the Daily Telegraph film critic