not a sycophant, not a hater

by kittery

Philip Seymour Hoffman in Death of a Salesman

I’m having a crap time lately. The death of Philip Seymour Hoffman has hit me really, absurdly hard.

  1. I am not a member of his family or circle of friends.
  2. I never had any type of working relationship with him.
  3. We never met.
  4. I have not seen all of his movies, or stage work.

So what the fuck is my problem? When I saw the headlines on my phone Sunday afternoon, I did this kind of horrified-clap-my-hand-over-my-mouth-shriek. It was weird, and probably scary. At any rate, it alarmed my husband who immediately said, “what? What’s wrong?” I took my hand away from my mouth and looked at my phone again, hoping I’d misread the headline. I hadn’t. “Philip Seymour Hoffman is dead,” I said horror-struck. “Oh. That sucks. What was it, drugs?” The only thing that nudged me out of pure, horrified shock was my husband’s attitude. He liked PSH, I was expecting a little more…shock…or even grief (even though this word might seem dramatic for someone to whom the four points above apply). Rationally, I really do think it’s ridiculous for me to be so sad about his passing. Who the hell am I to have such strong feelings? My only defense is that I saw him in Twister when it came out (I was ten), and instantly I was drawn to him. He was in no way the lead character, he didn’t have a lot of screen time, but God, there was something about “that guy” (later, I would do him the courtesy of learning his name). No matter what the film was, if I knew he was in it, and I could get my hands on it, I wanted it. A priest suspected of sexual abuse? Add it to the must-see pile. Had almost any other actor taken that role, I’m fairly certain I would never have bothered watching it.

Fifteen years after that little kid sat in front of the tv absorbed in Twister, I was a married woman, in New York City for my honeymoon. We had planned to see Death of a Salesman, however when we went to the theatre that afternoon almost all the seats were sold out and the remaining tickets…weren’t cheap. Backstory: My husband really wanted to see Salesman, it’s one of his favorite shows. I didn’t. I thought it would be a tired revival, and depressing to boot. I started to veto the idea when he said, “Philip Seymour Hoffman is in it,” then he tried really, really hard to not smirk because he knew he’d just won. As I was saying, our ticket options were not cheap. He looked at me, kind of sad, kind of hopeful and said, “do you think we should?” My head was reeling a little bit at the cost of this impulse buy, but I said, “it’s Philip Seymour Hoffman. We just won’t eat our last day, or something.” We bought the tickets, and went back to our hotel. As I was getting ready, I was a little nauseated at the amount of money we’d just spent, but really excited. I was going to see PSH onstage, live, performing, really, really close. We were going to be within spitting range.

That was one of the best theatre experiences of my life. He was incredible. His performance, at the risk of sounding trite, was breathtaking.

***

Acting is a lot more than the ability to memorize lines. It’s more than copying a facial expression, or raising your voice, or doing stereotypical happy/sad motions.

It takes a lot more.

It takes intelligence, compassion, critical thinking, it takes going outside yourself, and going really, really into yourself. Sometimes that’s not fun. Sometimes it’s draining and exhausting and hurts.

It’s a hundred other things. As an actor, he had those hundred other things. He was great.

I wanted to watch him onstage doing ‘serious work’ when I was twenty-five, just as much as I was drawn to watching him in smaller roles as a tornado chaser when I was ten, or his pissy, uptight med student when I was twelve.

At least in his work, he had a profound ability to understand us at our best, our worst, and everything in between.

He got us.

To me, that’s a rare gift, and I will miss him tremendously.

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