Philip Seymour Hoffman, a theatrically charged talent

Philip Seymour Hoffman at a curtain call for "Death of a Salesman" on Broadway, with costar Andrew Garfield.
(Mike Coppola / Getty Images)
Los Angeles Times Theater Critic

As a theater actor, Philip Seymour Hoffman commanded a pile-driving force. He didn’t start softly and build. He came out of the blocks in a fury and steadily ratcheted up to an apoplectic finish.

Writing in the Village Voice about his performance as Konstantin, the suicidal young writer in Mike Nichols’ 2001 Public Theater production of Chekhov’s “The Seagull” in Central Park with Meryl Streep and Natalie Portman, I compared him to “a jackhammer in an orchestra of tinkling triangles.”

The relentless intensity of Hoffman’s brand of stage acting could take some getting used to. Reviewing a revival of Richard Greenberg’s “The Author’s Voice” for Variety in 1999, I was impressed by the ferocity of Hoffman’s “vividly creepy” Kafkaesque performance as the id-like title character, but I found his performance to be somewhat monolithic, a tendency that was more apparent in his theatrical work than in his movie roles.

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The stage, however, was never an afterthought for this generational talent, who died Sunday of an apparent drug overdose. It was the medium through which this graduate of NYU’s bachelor of fine arts drama program kept his acting batteries charged, the source from which he replenished his sense of artistic purpose.


For Hoffman, the theater was all about the confrontation with what was most fearfully skirted in ordinary life, the darkness in oneself, the darkness in others. It was a place of collision where the truth could finally be wrested, broken and battered, from its hiding place.

Droll drawing room banter had little to do with Hoffman’s idea of the theater. A former artistic director of New York’s LAByrinth Theater and a committed company member, Hoffman affiliated himself with a troupe of theater artists who were fiercely urban, multicultural and not afraid of spitting when cursing one another out onstage. Guided by his example, their ensemble work was designed to cold-cock an audience.

As a theater director working off-Broadway, he gravitated to the plays of Stephen Adly Guirgis, another leading light at LAByrinth, staging “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train” and “Our Lady of 121st Street” with the kinetic assault of a gang rumble.

His production of Rebecca Gilman’s “The Glory of Living” captured the trashy surface of a murderous couple’s low-rent world with a criminologist’s stark exactitude. Nothing was prettified. The theater was where reality’s unflattering contours could be exposed.

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Hoffman appeared on Broadway in three productions and each was a modern classic that didn’t pull any punches. I appreciated him most in Matthew Warchus’ 2000 production of Sam Shepard’s “True West,” the play in which he and John C. Reilly alternated as polar opposite brothers, one barbaric, the other civilized, at least until they took off their shirts and starting wrestling in their mother’s kitchen, which proved no match for their angry girth.

Playing Jamie in Robert Falls’ 2003 revival of Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” Hoffman inhabited the self-loathing and despair of a character too filled with love not to warn his brother of the jealousy and hate gurgling inside him. The play, Hoffman said in an interview for the collection “Actors at Work,” “cannot be done without you telling the deepest, darkest secrets you have” -- which is no doubt what drew him to it.

When it was announced that he was playing Willy Loman in Mike Nichols’ 2012 revival of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” I felt personally uneasy. We’re around the same age. I was a young critic at the Village Voice when I saw Hoffman, then a rising movie talent, make his official off-Broadway debut in Caryl Churchill’s bizarrely poetic “The Skriker” at the Public Theater in 1996. And I felt -- still feel! -- a long way off from my Willy Loman years. Why was the middle-aged Hoffman leaping into his seniority?

The answer, of course, was that he was looking for acting challenges commensurate with his power. And in his scenes with Andrew Garfield’s heartbreaking Biff, Hoffman validated the wisdom of Miller’s contention that the common man is a subject eminently worthy of tragedy. The cathartic emotion that poured out of me during their father-son confrontation in the motel room left me feeling at once drained and replenished, broken and healed. It was everything the theater should be.

Endowed with an outsize histrionic nature, Hoffman needed the stage to channel his titanic energy. He already showed us his Iago in Peter Sellars’ unorthodox 2009 production (safe Shakespeare held little appeal for Hoffman), and there’s no doubt that, had he lived, he would have tackled King Lear, perhaps even before he hit 50.

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He was a physical actor in a very particular way. His flesh seemed to harbor the hidden knowledge and repressed feelings of his characters. Watching him on stage, you often got the sense that he was about to stampede his way to the truth, that his body wasn’t going to be complicit any longer with the silence and if it took a battering to get to the heart of the matter, a battering it would be.

I thought Hoffman showed more variety on screen than on stage. He was much more prolific as a movie actor, but I’m referring to the way he varied his colors within a performance. The camera elicited more delicate shades of his acting; the theater served a blunter purpose.

But you can’t separate these two sides of his genius. For Hoffman, stage and film work nourished each other in much the same way they do for Cate Blanchett. One of the few Hollywood luminaries to share his profound engagement with the theater, Blanchett once told me she would “exchange notes” whenever she saw her friend and costar from “The Talented Mr. Ripley.”

In the grief and shock of Hoffman’s death, I can’t help thinking of another premature casualty: Heath Ledger. Ledger and Hoffman were both nominated for Oscars the year Hoffman won for “Capote” in a tight race that could have easily gone to Ledger for “Brokeback Mountain.” Both performances deserved to be singled out. Both performers should have had longer careers.

As Oscar madness kicks into full gear, let’s try to bear in mind that great acting endures to the extent that it offers reflection on the mystery and madness of our lives, to the degree that it makes the sorrowful complexity of existence more bearable. Hoffman’s work offered us that. No gold statue can match that indelible glory.


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Twitter: @charlesmcnulty