One of Ours: The New York Legacy of Philip Seymour Hoffman

Philip Seymour Hoffman was a New Yorker — not just in name and presence, but in soul and spirit. He once said that he took his first major movie role, in Twister, because he knew it’d put enough money in his pocket to get him back to the city. Over the last decade, if you spent a lot of time in the Village, you had a decent chance of seeing him sooner or later, coming out of a restaurant, or jaywalking across the street in sloppy weekend clothes with a kid or two in tow, or going to see a play at the Public Theater. Often, he would turn up at the very end of a show’s run, because like many New Yorkers and all theater lovers, he understood that we live in a city and a culture of perpetual last chances. If you don’t make a point of seeing something great, it goes away forever.

New Yorkers are not easily starstruck — we are unmatched in our collective smugness about not staring — but we all have exceptions, people who discompose us, and for me, Hoffman was one of those guys. I’d turn a corner or step into a ticket queue, see his giant, mournful lion’s head and downcast smile, and feel a pinprick of awe and a little bit of hometown pride: He’s one of ours.

We admired him. We appreciated him. With arrogance but also with affection, we pretended we owned him, a little.

And now he has gone away forever.

His legacy of work is massive considering his much-too-short time in the public eye, and his taste in projects was so discerning that we’ll be revisiting his films for decades. But if he never had a moment onscreen, we would, today, be talking about the tragic death of one of our most important contemporary theater actors. He was that good.

The first time Hoffman really registered for me in a movie — the first time I thought That guy’s amazing — was in Boogie Nights. He was amorphous and blobby, a sweaty, pathetic sad sack. The first time I saw him on a Broadway stage was a little more than two years later, when he costarred with John C. Reilly in a revival of True West, Sam Shepard’s raw steak of a play about warring brothers, one a “civilized” screenwriter and the other a renegade and a criminal. True West is a workout, a test of force, focus, and will for any young American actor. There’s no escape — no respite from the text, from your costar, or from the audience. Hoffman and Reilly doubled the challenge by switching off in the two lead roles. You had to see it; then you had to see it again in order to understand that this prematurely portly character actor was also a blazing leading man. Hoffman seemed to undergo a metamorphosis that was almost physical: As the screenwriter, he was doughy and pale; as the outlaw, he was dense, beefy, and badass. He carried excess weight, always, but he also seemed to be in arresting command of it; he could make himself look strong or weak, imposing or boneless, menacing or pathetic. In both roles, he tapped into reserves of anger, power, humor, and truth that made you wonder if there was anything he couldn’t do.

On the evidence of his subsequent stage work, the answer was no. His talent seemed without limit, unconfined to genre or performance style. In the years that followed, I saw him in a Central Park production of The Seagull as Konstantin, the self-destructive, sour son of Arkadina; he created a black hole of a character, frightening and repellent and holding his own and then some with Meryl Streep years before their collaboration in Doubt. One night in 2003, I watched him play Jamie Tyrone opposite Vanessa Redgrave’s annihilating drug addict Mary in a Broadway revival of Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Redgrave was said by many to give a different performance every night, sometimes engaging with the four-hour play, sometimes fighting it. The evening I saw them was just a few days after the death of her own mother, and the honesty and ferocity with which she and Hoffman flew at each other — two great actors reaching deep into the black and ugly core of perhaps the greatest American family drama — transformed my understanding of Eugene O’Neill and made me think more than I ever had about what it might take out of an actor to give that much onstage.

No wonder everybody wanted to work with him. Hoffman’s theater work became less frequent as the demand for his talent in Hollywood grew. But then, two years ago, after playing some of the great sons and brothers in the modern canon, he took on the white whale — the challenge of the American theater’s central husband and father, Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman. He was 44 — too young, critics said, although mostly they said it before they saw him. His weary bulk. His need. His vanity and self-deception. His defeat. His pettiness. His failing. His mortality. His resentment and his crudity and his cruelty. Whoever he had been before, he became Willy. And every night, he seemed to carry a lifetime’s worth of obliterating exhaustion and failure onto the stage. It was hard to watch a performance that was so free of any attempt at self-preservation.

That is what great stage actors do. Hoffman’s theater work did not rely on an accretion of technique, of vocal flourish, or of gesture; it always felt more like a stripping away, a painstaking removal of anything that might previously have been associated with him until all that remained was the man he was playing. He erased himself in order to become someone else, because that was the job. On the nights I watched him play Willy, I found it impossible to imagine what he did after the curtain came down. How do you live one man’s apocalypse six days a week and then step back into the intact and undisturbed self you left somewhere in your small dressing room? What does it cost? Like all of his stage work, his Willy Loman felt, to me, dangerous.

But that didn’t make those of us who loved to watch him any less greedy. We always want more from our best actors — even now we mourn by saying “He had so much more to give us!” — and we have very little to offer in return except admiration. Which didn’t seem like something he particularly wanted to have to handle, anyway. Hoffman was a man of extraordinary graciousness, but it was almost painful to watch him attempt to take a compliment. He’d listen with frustrated kindness, as if you just gave him something that was way too big for his apartment and actually kind of damaging. He had no good place to put admiration.

I hope he loved acting onstage as much as he seemed to. He lived in it, and he kept coming back to it, not only as an actor but as a consistently insightful and generous director of contemporary work put on by the LAByrinth Theater Company, an Off Broadway artists’ collective with which he maintained a long association. People who cherish theater are fond of saying that its magic is its transience. Even the most brilliant performance is gone the moment it happens. Your relationship to it is not precisely reproducible, nor is the actor’s; the most scrupulous attempt to re-create a perfect moment the following night can yield a wholly unsatisfying result. This often gets reduced to “You had to be there,” but the truth is that even if you were there, it evaporates as it’s happening. “Poof!” Hoffman once said of his attitude about finishing a long run onstage. “Bye-bye … You finish something, and it’s done … That journey’s now over.

And there’s no going back. You can never revisit a great performance, only your memories of it. I think Hoffman knew there was beauty and honor in giving yourself to work that was evanescent. I can’t believe there won’t be any more chances to see him, but I feel deeply grateful to have witnessed his work, even as it vanished before my eyes. I’ll grieve by trying to recapture it. And I know I’ll fail.

Filed Under: In Memoriam, Obituary, Broadway, New York City, philip seymour hoffman