A demon returns [Commentary]

Normally, I get neither sad nor particularly sentimental when celebrities die. But I'm really bent out of shape about Philip Seymour Hoffman's death Sunday from an apparent heroin overdose.

According to friends, Mr. Hoffman had been living drug-free for more than two decades until recently relapsing. His death is a reminder that even a demon suppressed for a long time is never fully exorcised and may, at some point, burst forth with an arresting potency — an apt description, as it were, of so many of Mr. Hoffman's most memorable on-screen performances.


Indeed, insofar as there is a thread connecting the various roles Mr. Hoffman inhabited across almost every film genre — serious dramas and formulaic comedies, summer blockbusters and short-run indie films — it was his ability to harness, modulate and then release the inner fury of a character for maximal cinematic effect.

Sometimes this meant unleashing vein-popping and often profanity-laced tirades at others or even himself: The front-seat meltdown by the lovable, pitiable Scotty J in "Boogie Nights"; the venomous, over-the-phone invectives spewed by the sleazy mattress salesman of "Punch Drunk Love"; the colorful office rants of a frustrated Greek-American spy in "Charlie Wilson's War," which earned him an Oscar nomination; the breathy, degrading soliloquies of a phone sex-addled creep in "Happiness"; the self-righteous fury with which Mr. Hoffman berates a nun in another Oscar-nominated performance as the pedophile priest in "Doubt"; or even the comedic, self-abnegating confessionals of a former child actor in the atrocious rom-com, "Along Comes Polly."


In other roles, Mr. Hoffman delivered his characters' anger more sublimely. Think here of his quietly mounting pique as Oakland A's manager Art Howe, opposite Brad Pitt in "Moneyball," or his final scene in "The Ides of March" as the political consultant exuding pithy disdain toward the protégé who betrayed him. And although he won his best-actor Oscar in part for his spot-on inhabitation of Truman Capote's quirky voice and persona, it is the scene in which an exasperated Capote cruelly humiliates an accused murderer inside his death-row cell that clinched the statue for Mr. Hoffman.

Mr. Hoffman was perhaps at his best when navigating between these extremes — suppressing rage or mania a moment before erupting to reveal the devious or malevolent underbelly of a character. A familiar example is his final Oscar-nominated role as cult leader Lancaster Dodd in "The Master," in which Mr. Hoffmann maintains a studied veneer of self-control until snapping at a socialite who challenges his controversial theories of human history.

But for my money — which today means a $12 movie ticket — Mr. Hoffman's greatest performance is among his least known: as the degenerate gambler in "Owning Mahowny."

Based on a true story about a Canadian banker who embezzled and lost millions of dollars, Mr. Hoffman portrays a craven gambler so paralyzed by his addiction he extracts no joy from life. To continue luring him back, a heartless casino manager offers Mahowny whatever he may want — luxurious rooms, prostitutes, champagne. Yet the rumpled, slump-shouldered Mahowny partakes of none of it, instead befriending a low-level staffer with whom he eats ribs (with no sauce) in a dank stairwell during short breaks before returning to the tables, zombie-like, to gamble away every last chip.

Only when other characters impede his quest to embezzle or gamble more, does Mr. Hoffman let Mahowny's submerged aggression slip out. It's a haunting portrayal that haunts me even more now, given Mr. Hoffman's own addictive demise.

In a 2009 documentary about the also-tragically truncated career of actor John Cazale — who, before dying of cancer in 1978 at age 42, appeared in only five feature films, all of which were nominated for Best Picture, including the two "Godfather" films in which he played Fredo — Mr. Hoffman discussed how Mr. Cazale's career had influenced him. "[H]e seemed to be kind of uncomfortably vulnerable in everything he did and that makes people think, 'Oh, I think I may have to work a little harder… because this guy is really going for it'," said Mr. Hoffman.

Thirty years hence, some actor will say much the same about Philip Seymour Hoffman. He will be missed.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears every other Wednesday. His email is Twitter: @schaller67.


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