I remember hearing a story once about the vast amount of time it took Philip Seymour Hoffman to walk to a craft service table. He was on the set of Charlie Kaufman’s intensely polarizing 2008 directorial debut, “Synecdoche, New York,” in which he played the lead role of Caden Cotard, an aging playwright who mounts an epic production he is doomed never to complete. The character ages from 40 to 80 during the course of the film, and it often appears as if the character’s life is flashing before his eyes. His impending death haunts every frame, as the tortured artist rages against the flickering light, straining to replicate every last facet of life itself.
Though “Synecdoche” was dismissed as pretentious and incoherent by many critics and audiences, it held a special place in the heart of Roger Ebert, who hailed it as the best film of the decade, and said that it helped him cope with his own mortality. It also happened to star the actor Ebert reportedly hoped would play him in a biopic someday, and it goes without saying that Hoffman would’ve been an excellent choice. His commitment and skill as an actor rivaled that of his most esteemed peers, as displayed on the “Synecdoche” set, when it took him a seeming eternity to reach the craft service table, hobbling toward it while dressed as the geriatric Caden. It’s chilling to see footage of Hoffman as an old man, considering that after today’s devastating news, it’s clear that he will never reach that age, nor give us the countless great performances he had planned to deliver over the next several decades.
My first memory of Hoffman was in “Twister,” a film that caused me to leave the theater in tears when I was only 10 (I couldn’t stand the image of the little girl’s dad getting sucked up into the tornado). Hoffman played the goofball comic relief, and his anarchic glee calmed my nerves and caused me to stick around. I didn’t become an official fan of him until I saw Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia,” the gloriously Altmanesque mosaic that also introduced me to the likes of Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, John C. Reilly and Philip Baker Hall. As Phil Parma, the nurse who serves as the caregiver to a terminally ill Jason Robards, Hoffman exuded a tenderness and vulnerability that was utterly captivating. Anderson had written the role specifically for Hoffman, which suggests that the character’s innate goodness wasn’t all that far off from the man playing him.
Looking over Hoffman’s filmography, it’s staggering to realize just how many extraordinary performances he gave in so few years: as the lovesick Scotty J. in “Boogie Nights,” as the genial Lester Bangs in “Almost Famous,” as the sexually arrested Allen in “Happiness,” as the monstrous Dean Trumbell in “Punch-Drunk Love,” as the guilt-ridden Truman Capote in “Capote” (the film that would earn him the Best Actor Oscar), as the fatally ambitious Andy in “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” as the volatile Gust Avrakotos in “Charlie Wilson’s War,” as the ethically dubious Father Flynn in “Doubt,” as the toweringly formidable yet startlingly flawed Lancaster Dodd in “The Master,” and (just a few months ago) as the conniving Plutarch Heavensbee in “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” a role he was set to reprise in the franchise’s final two pictures. He could even make a spectacular impression in a mere few minutes of screen time, as he did in Anderson’s debut feature, “Hard Eight,” as a craps player whose cackling bravado is swiftly demolished by Hall’s silent, veteran gambler.
Yet the role that continues to haunt my inner-most soul on this profoundly sad day is Caden in “Synecdoche,” a masterpiece of such uncharted depths that I have often referred to it as “the gift that keeps on giving.” At age 46, Hoffman died at the peak of his powers. He had received tremendous acclaim not only in film but on stage as well, most recently for starring in a 2012 revival of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” the same play Caden is seen directing in the opening act of “Synecdoche.” Yet unlike Caden, Hoffman’s potential is far from unrealized. His body of work is richly varied, astonishingly provocative and absolutely second to none. I am so deeply grateful for all the laughs and tears he has elicited from me, as well as the inspiration he has given to any artist who dares to reach for the stars. My prayers are with him, his family, friends and dearest collaborators. I’ll close with these lyrics from Jon Brion’s “Little Person,” the song that unforgettably accompanies the end titles of “Synecdoche.”
Somewhere, maybe someday
Maybe somewhere far away
I’ll find a second little person
Who will look at me and say
“I know you
You’re the one I’ve waited for
Let’s have some fun.”
Life is precious every minute
And more precious with you in it
So let’s have some fun
We’ll take a road trip way out west
You’re the one I like the best
I’m glad I’ve found you
Like hangin’ ’round you
You’re the one I like the best.