RIP, Philip Seymour Hoffman

The internet is abuzz with people sharing their grief over Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death.  Usually “R.I.P.” is one of those abbreviations that irritates me: an easy token, almost meaningless, possessing the same spiritual oomph as those cheap foam headstones littering suburban lawns at Halloween – ironically, the type of instantly-recognizable milieu from the set of a movie Hoffman would have starred in.

And the acronym – rip – is eerily appropriate to describe how many of us feel after learning about his death. Torn – even despairing – it does indeed feel as though he’s been ripped away from us. To put this feeling in perspective, I’ve never written about a celebrity death before out of the simple reason that I’ve never felt moved enough to. But when my phone dinged innocuously on the kitchen counter and I read the terrible headline, I had to read it three times before my brain would accept his death as fact.

I’ve spent the last day thinking about why I feel such a loss. Certainly, Hoffman was imperfect and a rare specimen of Hollywood celebrity. But that’s obvious. The Globe and Mail’s Geoff Pevere has compared him to “prickly” character actors like De Niro and Keitel. I see the similarity, but those actors were almost always typecast. So, too, was Hoffman, you might say. And yes, he was – but he was invariably cast in roles that were always diverse and surprising.

I first saw him in Happiness almost fifteen years ago when, browsing the shelves at the video store (remember that?) the movie’s title seemed too good to pass up. His portrayal of Allen, the neighbour obsessed with the pedophile’s sister-in-law, was mesmerizing. Hoffman’s acting was complex and intimate – and to say that the masturbation scenes were uncomfortable doesn’t do his acting justice. He was comic, tragic, and embarrassing, jerking up the come, eyes clenched shut in helplessness and pathos. My roommate was revolted; I was entranced.

Hoffman always took roles that were challenging.  He achieved what all good artists do: through his work, we saw ourselves, flawed, magnificent, human. His range was monumental – a defeated coach in Moneyball, hyper-anxious assistant in The Big Lebowski, and, as a colleague put it today, more Capote than Capote. He made me interested in acting as an art form, and able to recognize talent like Ryan Gosling — but only because I had seen it before in Hoffman. And those were only the movies – I wish I had seen him on Broadway.

He was devoted to acting. The antithesis of a star actor, he appeared in interviews as part bear, part caveman. Capote was the most groomed I’ve ever seen him. A friend who used to work in Toronto’s movie industry described him as the guy in the disheveled tuxedo with the grease stain on his belly. He seemed unapologetically himself, and perhaps to his detriment.

I’ll be honest; as someone who doesn’t follow celebrities closely, I didn’t know Hoffman battled addiction. And I don’t like correlating artistry with addiction, which is a disease. But I wasn’t, however, surprised to learn about his struggles. One can only imagine that the kind of empathy and recognition Hoffman evoked in us must have felt exponentially stronger to him.

Selfishly, I want more from him; many of us do. I want another thirty years of movies, to be able, at the end of the week, to snuggle into my favorite corner of the sectional, turn on the television, see a movie with his name on the cast list, and to watch it without hesitation. I want him to show me more of my world and myself. Even his death, sadly, has held up a mirror: the conflicted narcissist, self-admirer.

I heard tonight that Broadway has dimmed its lights. It’s going to take considerable time for us to let Hoffman go. As we do, I hope he truly rests in peace.

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