Death of an Artist: the Actor of His Generation

Posted: Feb 07, 2014 12:01 AM
Death of an Artist: the Actor of His Generation

It's a succession of sensations Americans have come to know all too well in these sad cases: shock, then grief, then the details nobody really wants to know. A detail like the needle found in Philip Seymour Hoffman's arm when a couple of his discovered the actor's body over the weekend.

In all the reams of details and tributes, just what we have lost may get lost itself. How could this Philip Seymour Hoffman get inside so many mysterious, ominous, soul-destroying characters? His range was as wide as the Pacific Ocean's. How could he fathom all those types, yet leave them unfathomable? That may be his lasting legacy as an actor. He didn't just capture the outrageous but the timid, able to play one role with wild flamboyance, another with restraint -- even a restrained restraint.

How did Philip Seymour Hoffman do it? Our theory is that he explored the evils of our nature because he himself was so ... decent. For he was one of the few actors who, once off-stage or off-camera, made quiet, unassuming sense whenever he was interviewed. He didn't sound like a fool actor far beyond his depth. Maybe because he was one contemporary celebrity I can't ever remember talking politics.

Just where the artificial line between being an actor and a character actor is drawn has never been clear. But if there is such a distinction, Philip Seymour Hoffman mastered both callings. Maybe because he not only had talent but studied, studied, studied -- not just the lines he spoke or the characters he played or the book or script from which the character and story were drawn, but some inner essence he found there.

Someone once described genius as the capacity for taking infinite pains. Maybe that was the secret, or one of them, of Philip Seymour Hoffman's genius.

In his own way, this singular actor and artist of his generation confirmed Plato's theory that acting isn't an art at all, but a kind of divine fit -- a visitation of the gods that transforms the actor. And transfixes the audience, even now, in grateful memory.