The onslaught of media following the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman has been nothing short of amazing. From the Wall Street Journal’s initial report to the (expected) discovery that it was drug related, the swiftness and delivery of these facts came at the blink of the eye. Like with most celebrity deaths, the subsequent wave of support and questionable backlash are always a topic of concern. And given the reason for Hoffman’s death, it’s clearly become a talking point as to whether or not the media ought to cover such a death in the first place. These discussions are all rather frivolous and within the moment, rarely permitting much thought for analysis or critical thought. Even this post, one that comes well over 24 hours after the news broke out, enters a vortex of conversation dominated by those who have made up their minds on the social, political, and artistic contributions of Philip Seymour Hoffman. While my stance may fluctuate as the years go by, at the moment, it’s hard to question the actor’s contributions to the medium.
Most will cite his Oscar-winning performance in Capote as his best role. Others may suggest any one of his impressive collaborations with Paul Thomas Anderson, from the Mattress Man in Punch-Drunk Love to Lancaster Dodd in The Master, as his best. Others may mine for worthy performances in bad films, such was his work in films like Patch Adams or Before the Devil Knows Your Dead. Despite his prolific career, it was rare for the actor to ever actually headline a picture. His films almost always required a rich ensemble cast to work. But whereas most actors would attempt to vie for screen time, Hoffman had an inexplicable knack for understanding the tonal trajectory of his pictures and kept in line with it. It’s why he fit so well within those ensembles, from Boogie Nights to The Ides of March and most impressively in 25th Hour.
But it’s Hoffman’s performance in Synecdoche, New York that encapsulates the complicated emotional terrain that he was able to navigate the audience through. It’s a difficult performance and film to pin down - a good indicator as to why the film never really caught on with audiences. But the film’s understanding of death and the need to establish a legacy are the sorts of universal issues that the film encounters that, in the wake of Hoffman’s death, feels increasingly vital and true.