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Ethan Hawke, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Albert Finney in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

An Etched Image of Philip Seymour Hoffman

I’m certainly not going to tell you anything you don’t already know about Philip Seymour Hoffman. I’m not going to link to the stories about his death and the crowds and the needle and maybe the smack mixed with fentanyl and the damage done. Rather, what I’m going to say is that in 2003, I saw him in Sam Shepard’s True West. He played Austin and Lee, but the night I saw the play, he played Austin, the screenwriter brother who’s just (at first) trying to keep working now that Lee has showed up at their mother’s house, where Austin’s house-sitting, and begins to try to get a rise out of him. I have kind of a thing for this play. I had earlier seen Randy Quaid play Austin, in a different production, probably the late 1980s.  And while the sense of alienation that each actor brought to the role remains pretty fixed in my theater-going memory, I would have to say that the way Philip Seymour Hoffman in those early scenes went about his concentration, his distraction, his concentrated distraction, was underlain by frustration that pretty much stopped you cold.

Philip Seymour Hoffman was as this great piece in Esquire asserts, evidence of that thin line between character actor and star. Even though he always played characters that, yes, looked rumpled, and especially, deeply uneasy in their skin, he had an elegance to his performances that hit you. What it seemed to me he did do in his parts was unlock that edge to his psyche that let you go for the span of a movie or a play over into the place where you’re the one who’s safe in the dark, watching him sweat. He portrayed people who it was very hard to be. As he sweated, we sweated. He admitted people in through the door of his enormous talent,and made us complicit with him in whatever snafu he was in. I found myself awake in the night the night of the day he had died in New York, feeling like I could see Philip Seymour Hoffman perched on the edge of the bed in Todd Solondz’s Happiness (1998). He gets obsessed with somebody who he starts calling on the telephone. He’s lonely and so frustrated, in a similar way to the frustrated mess we see him in at the front of Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. A vein of frustration I first saw him tap in True West. He’s got a big problem that we’re not all quite privy to at the start. He always seems to have a big problem.  And when, as now seems far too easy to say, it’s possible to imagine how he knew, how well he knew what that problem was, and how intense it was to stay on this side of it, well, the fact is now he’s gone. Him and David Foster Wallace and a lot of other people who shouldn’t have died with their talent still so fluid in their veins. But doesn’t it just make us all look selfish? To want more of what was so consistently, with anguish, close to perfect.

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