Reflections on “Capote”, after Philip Seymour Hoffman’s passing

The day that Philip Seymour Hoffman died, I was browsing devices in a Verizon Wireless store. I picked up a random tablet and the first thing that popped into my view was the headline on a news app. Hoffman’s face stared out at me from the glowing screen of the device. “PHILLIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN HAS PASSED,” it read. Something snapped inside me. I nearly dropped the tablet.

He was found in his hotel room, surrounded by little bags of heroin with the images of playing cards printed on the outside of them. I never even knew that he had been struggling with drug addiction, and it destroys me inside that someone so accomplished, by all outward appearances, could be tortured in this way. It is horrible to see such a talented performer pass at the hands of the hovering specter that is drug addiction.

It is always a shock when one of your idols dies. But when they die alone in their hotel room, a needle in their arm, surrounded by little envelopes labeled  with images of the Ace of Spades, it becomes so much worse. And I could barely make myself read more deeply into what happened.

I know he relapsed. And I know that he overdosed. And that is all I want to know.

The man was well-respected by nearly everyone I spoke to, and to serious movie fans he was a household name. He took on the difficult roles;  the understated, supporting roles that others wouldn’t.  Seeing him in The Big Lebowski, of course, made me smile, because that has always been among my favorite films. And his appearance in the new Hunger Games movie was a good break for him into the mainstream (I have no idea how they could hope to replace him.) But his real genius lay in lesser-known, more challenging films, such as Doubt and The Master. Here, I am going to focus in one in particular… the classic for which he won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 2005, Capote.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman starred in the movie, "Capote", for which he won Best Actor in 2005.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman starred in the movie “Capote”, for which he won Best Actor in 2005.

Capote was the story of the accomplished novelist Truman Capote, who decides to write a true-to-life biography/true crime novel about a pair of grisly murders in rural Kansas. In the process of writing it, Capote struggled with the line between author and subject, and the difficult ethical questions presented by an artist’s attempt to mix reality with fiction techniques in his writing. Hoffman’s portrayal cast a vivid impression of a man of ambition, a gifted writer, and a flamboyant socialite, who became obsessed and deeply involved in the lives of a pair of troubled murderers, and in particular, with the kindred spirit of Perry Smith.

As much as Hoffman was a hero of mine in the world of film, so was Capote a hero of mine in the world of writing. He could draw you in, shock you, fill you with wonder, and transport you with the depth and poignancy of his writing. But when the techniques of fiction blur with the outcomes experienced by real people as a result of a piece of writing, and suddenly lives are on the line, quality fiction just doesn’t cut it. Trenchant reporting, and world-changing writing, must be grounded in a solid understanding of ethics, intentionality, responsibility, and dare I say, consequences. In deepening his relationship with Perry Smith and providing the doomed man and his partner in crime with hope that he could not ultimately fulfill, Capote overstepped the bounds of a responsible writer.

Hoffman’s portrayal of Capote was flourishing, nuanced, and ultimately brilliant. He showed a man losing himself to the struggle of what good gonzo writing really is and should be: significant and reflective of reality, while at the same time fascinating, mind-bending and addictive. Capote knew all along that In Cold Blood would be a classic in the canon of modern literature. But the book nearly killed him, and while it is acknowledged as a masterpiece of its genre, it would turn out to be his last book published in full.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman embraced the roles that dismiss the simplicity and shallowness of black-and-white ethics. The great performances of his career reflect a reality that is beyond good and evil, right and wrong, happy and sad. He tussled with the fullness of reality, the world where things are not what they seem and stories don’t always end with the heroes living happily ever after. He tussled with complexity. And he lived the life of an artist, giving us the gift of consistently stellar performances throughout his life.

But his true legacy, which will certainly be colored by the ignominious circumstance of his death, will be the face and voice of the strange and challenging minority. He was not like the others. If there was one thing that Phillip Seymour Hoffman wasn’t, it was one-dimensional. And perhaps that is part of what tortured him so, and repeatedly led him to the false comfort of hard drugs. He was an outlier, an idiosyncratic face and voice that would be impossible to pin down, and a consistently brilliant actor.

He will be sorely missed.

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