Not what you’d call traditionally handsome, and a far cry far from sample size, Philip Seymour Hoffman — who, as you probably know, died from what appears to have been a heroin overdose this weekend — wasn’t your typical style icon. But that’s what he was. Hoffman’s career was a reminder that style is about integrity first and image-making second. The characters he played were often damaged, troubled, or downright deranged, and he brought them to life with a fearless lack of vanity, which stands in sharp contrast to a few red carpet-friendly actors I could name, who tend to play the person — i.e., themselves — in every role.
There’s no shortage of PSH remembrances out there, but here’s mine.
I was lucky enough to catch Hoffman in the 2000 revival of Sam Shepard’s True West, in which he and John C. Reilly swapped roles every other performance. I’ve always suspected that everyone who saw the play felt they lucked out with their actor-to-character assignment, but I’m convinced we really did get the right actor in the right role, with Reilly as up-tight Austin and PSH in the role of his beer-swilling drifter brother, Lee. Hoffman was quite obviously tapping into something deep with that performance, as he was 12 years later in the role of Willy Loman in Mike Nichols’ revival of Death of a Salesman.
Both performances were deeply affecting and utterly unforgettable, but it was an off-duty encounter with the great actor that haunts me most in the wake of his death. The evening before last year’s Oscars, my wife and I were having a glass of wine and an early bite at one of our favorite Italian restaurants in the West Village, when Hoffman and his family strolled in and sat down for dinner. We’d seen True West and Death of a Salesman at different points in our relationship, and were blown away that — while the rest of Hollywood partied out in L.A. — this Best Actor nominee (for a typically pitch-perfect performance in The Master) chose to spend the evening back home in NYC grabbing an early dinner with his family at the neighborhood Italian joint. It was all so exceedingly, endearingly normal. And there he was the following evening, affably strolling the Dolby Theater red carpet with his son as a date, more concerned with being best dad than best dressed.
As we learned over the weekend, all was pretty far from normal for Philip Seymour Hoffman. No one can know what he was going through. All we can do is think of those he’s left behind. And be reminded that style without substance is meaningless — and that sometimes substance is its own brand of style. R.I.P.