Though so gifted he imbued the slightest acting role with a complexity that made it memorable, though his passion for his craft was such he would go to astonishing lengths to capture the essence of the characters he played, he remained unconvinced of his own worth.
However mesmerising a performance he gave, however rapturous the reception he received, a sense of emptiness and failure stalked him like a hungry predator. These are not feelings that have been imposed upon him after the event; they are feelings he articulated often, as if expressing them publicly them might somehow keep his demons at bay.
“I [have] got to remember to not kill myself, not beat myself up, not get too worked up about it,” he told a journalist in 2011, when he was still clean. The following year, when he was already on the slide, he added: “I really don’t know what it means to be happy.”
At a private funeral held on Friday night at the Church of St Ignatius Loyola, a grand, Gothic building on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Hollywood’s elite – including Meryl Streep, Michelle Williams, Cate Blanchett and Joaquin Phoenix – filed in, distraught, to say their farewells. But the true depth of the hole his death has left in the acting community was best expressed in the many written tributes to the man and his craft.
Once described as the “bleakest optimist you ever did see”, Hoffman was drawn to playing characters who shared his sense of self-loathing: Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman; James Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night; Scotty J in Boogie Nights.
Maybe because he empathised with them, he played them with compassion. And maybe because he played them with compassion, he communicated their inner humanity. Even Allen, the heavy breather in Todd Solondz’s Happiness – a character who, in most actors’ hands, would be beyond the pale – is not bereft of dignity, another quality those who knew the actor say he had in spades.
Since his death last week at the age of 46, some journalists have been doing their best to strip him of that dignity. Within hours of his body being found in his Greenwich Village apartment, websites and newspapers were reporting that he had died with a needle in his arm, and pictures of him being brought out in a body bag were being published. There was salacious gossip about recent binges, and questions about his sexuality. Sadly even the poignancy of candle-lit vigil held outside the Labyrinth Theatre Company, where Hoffman once served as artistic director, couldn’t blot out the images of him dishevelled and bloated which began to circulate on the internet.
In many ways, his death was in synch with the rest of his life; with his crumpled suits and unkempt hair, Hoffman was the antithesis of Hollywood glamour and superficiality. Not for him the typical movie star unravelling – all flash cars, public meltdowns and drug-fuelled pool parties. Hoffman died an unglamorous everyman’s death: miserable, alone and squalid (albeit with a bank balance that allowed him to stockpile 70 bags of smack).
And yet, remarkably, Hoffman has transcended the degradation of his final hours. However unsavoury, his death has prompted an outpouring of love and respect for a man who found it impossible to love and respect himself.
For those who like to believe the roots of a man’s psychological problems can be traced to his childhood, Hoffman comes as a bit of a disappointment. Born in Fairport, New York, his mother was a family court judge, his father a Xerox executive. It was a mixed Catholic/Protestant marriage and they divorced when he was nine, but if it caused him any great trauma then he never shared that publicly.
Indeed, his relationship with his mother remained so close that when he won his Oscar, he praised her for raising four children alone and for nurturing his passion for acting. Nor was his climb to the top a massive struggle. Admittedly, with his less than film star looks, it took him a while to land a lead role, but his talent was recognised from the moment he made his first TV appearance, a bit part in LA Law.
Having joined a drama club at high school after a neck injury put paid to his wrestling, he was chosen to attend the New York State Summer School of the Arts in Saratoga Springs in 1984 and went on to New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.
By the time he graduated in 1989, however, Hoffman was abusing “everything he could get his hands on”. He checked into rehab because he feared he might die. Though he kicked the habit, he was never complacent about his addictive personality. “Just because all that time’s passed doesn’t mean ‘maybe it was just a phase’. That’s, you know, who I am,” he said in 2006.
For more than two decades, he managed to channel his compulsiveness into acting. “If you can go to the theatre and you’re in a room with a bunch of other people and what’s happening in front of you is not happening, but you actually believe it is, if I can do that, I’ve done my job. And that’s the thing that – that is a drug. That’s something you get addicted to,” he later said.
Hoffman wasn’t exaggerating. For a start, there’s a manic quality to the sheer quantity of work he took on – in film and theatre, acting and directing – as if stopping, even for a moment, might allow some other force to take hold.
And then there’s the almost obsessive way he inhabited his roles, endowing each of them with a kind of magnetic presence which meant his performances, however peripheral, often came to define the film. Think of his portrayal of Brandt, the unctuous butler in the Coen brothers’ movie The Big Lebowski, who, with his weird laugh and tie-straightening, arm-flapping tics, is a masterclass in prissiness. Or how Scotty J in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, whose rejection by porn star Dirk Diggler – which leaves him curled up in his car, wailing “I’m a f***ing idiot, I’m a f***ing idiot” – comes to embody the loser we all affect to despise, but secretly fear is lurking inside us.
Not all Hoffman’s characters are dysfunctional outsiders, of course. But they are all approached with the same rigour. In Anderson’s Magnolia, he plays a cancer nurse whose kindness to a dying patient provides the film’s moral core. In Almost Famous, he plays the celebrated music journalist Lester Bangs who mentors a young wannabe.
After Hoffman’s death, director Cameron Crowe described the way he had transformed the film’s key scene – a phone call between the pair – from “a call to arms” to “two guys, both at the crossroads, both hurting, and both up too late”. He wrote: “I realised [he] had pulled off a magic trick. He’d leapt over the words and the script, and gone hunting for the soul and compassion of the private Lester. I will always be grateful for that front row seat to his genius.”
Though Hoffman’s gift was never in doubt – the profusion and range of parts he was offered throughout the nineties, from George Willis Junior in Scent of a Woman to Rusty Zimmerman, the drag queen in Flawless, is testament to that – his early career was nevertheless understated. Perhaps it was because he was so different from one role to the next, or perhaps it was because was so private, but, for a long time, Hoffman was an actor many people recognised but couldn’t put a name to.
Though highly regarded by those he worked with, he also struggled to get the official recognition he deserved. He had been nominated and lost out on two Tony awards before Capote – which centred on the In Cold Blood author’s morally ambiguous relationship with murderer Perry Smith – came along and changed everything.
Hoffman’s approach to portraying Truman Capote was predictably intense. He spent hours watching footage of the author and trying to mimic his high voice and fey mannerisms. Having mastered them, he kept in character throughout filming – on set and off – because “the way my mouth works is completely differently from his mouth. It’s hard just to drop and pick up again.” It was worth the effort: his portrayal was hailed a masterpiece and won him a Golden Globe, a Bafta and a best actor Oscar.
In the years that followed, Hoffman took on a succession of equally demanding roles. In Doubt, he played Fr Brendan Flynn, a priest accused of being paedophile with enough subtlety to keep the audience guessing about his guilt. His portrayal of a cult leader loosely based on Ron L Hubbard in Anderson’s The Master was a tour de force which saw him veer from latently aggressive tyrant to charismatic svengali and contained a scene only he could carry off: of the leader performing a sprightly parlour dance while surrounded be naked female acolytes.
Never precious, he interspersed these major roles with lesser ones such as Owen Davian in Mission Impossible III and gamesmaker Plutarch Heavensbee, in the Hunger Games trilogy, the last of which he was filming when he died.
Though he declined to talk much about his family, he met costume designer Mimi O’Donnell in 1999 and the couple went on to have three children, Cooper, ten, Tallulah, seven, and Willa, five. “When you become a parent you look at your parents differently, you look at being a child differently. It is an awakening,” he said.
But in 2012, his behaviour started to become erratic and it was clear that after two decades of being clean he had started using again. He constantly fell asleep while giving interviews to promote The Master at the Venice Film Festival. Much later he admitted he had checked into rehab to try to nip a renewed drug problem in the bud.
In recent weeks, however, it had become apparent the problem was getting worse. He spilt up with O’Donnell last autumn and, on the night before he died, he is said to have withdrawn $1,200 dollars in six separate transactions from an ATM at a nearby supermarket. His body was found late the following morning after he failed to pick up his children as arranged.
Two of his performances – as the head of a German anti-terrorism unit in Anton Corbijn’s adaptation of the John le Carre novel A Most Wanted Man and as Heavensbee in The Mockingjay – will be released later this year, a haunting reminder of his gift from beyond the grave.
As the days have passed, many have been trying to draw a message or lesson from the tragic nature of Hoffman’s demise. Some have suggested it highlights the indiscriminate nature of drug addiction. Comedian Russell Brand said it demonstrated the dangers of a drugs policy which treats people like him as criminals rather than patients. That’s debatable. But Brand did capture hopelessness of the junkie when he wrote: “In spite of all the loving friends and family, there is a predominant voice…that supersedes all reason and that voice wants you dead. This voice is the unrelenting echo of an unfulfillable void.”
Hoffman expressed it differently. He said: “I think everyone struggles with self-love. I think that’s pretty much the human condition, you know, waking up and trying to live your day in a way that you can go to sleep and feel OK about yourself.”
For all the compassion Hoffman extended to other people – both real and fictional – it seems he was unable to reach an accommodation with his own demons. “He loved me until I learned how to love myself,” said screenwriter Andrea Ciannavei last week. “I just wish he could have shown himself the same kindness that he so selflessly and relentlessly showed to others.”