When I was a teenager, my uncle told me that the person whose death affected him the most in his life was John Lennon. Not his father or his mother, nor a childhood friend. Instead, he mourned for a person he never knew and had little chance of ever having a personal relationship with. When my uncle told me this, I thought I understood, but when I found myself sobbing in my car yesterday over the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, I knew I did: It was not the death of John Lennon the person that fueled my uncle’s grief, but rather the loss of his art and the ideas he represented, which, no matter how universal they may be, are always unique to the individual.
For me, it was always the way Hoffman gave dignity and humanity to those characters who often receive none from us in life: the losers, the outcasts, the addicts, and the criminals. Many obituaries of Hoffman’s will say that he was defined by his versatility, but such a claim overlooks a clear motif in his career: he played losers with such full humanity. From Scottie in Boogie Nights to Willie Loman in Death of a Salesman on Broadway, Hoffman’s career is bursting with characters who are unsuccessful at life – and miserably unhappy for it. His roles in Owning Mahoney, Love Liza, Happiness, The 25th Hour, Synecdoche, New York, and Jack Goes Boating shined a warm and forgiving light on those who tried to grasp happiness and failed.
Even those characters who appeared confident and successful, such as Lancaster Dodd in The Master or Dean Trumbull in Punch-Drunk Love, were always revealed to be frightened, cowardly men hiding behind their bravado. He even imbued his more successful characters, such as The Count in Pirate Radio or his Oscar-winning depiction of Truman Capote, with a strong sense of fading glory. These men had known darkness, and they knew there was more coming.
But it’s Scottie in Boogie Nights that will always have a home in my heart. I was 17 years old when I saw the film in the theater; in hindsight, I can admit that I went mostly for the sex scenes, but I got a great deal more. I related to the themes in fairly explainable ways – I grew up in an unconventional family and was searching for a sense of normalcy – but the vitality of director P.T. Anderson’s filmmaking spoke to me, as well. And those characters: I probably thought at the time that I related most to Dirk Diggler, but I know now that Scottie was my entry point into the movie. Was there anyone more vulnerable? Like the dorky kid who somehow managed to find his way to the cool table, Scottie knew that he didn’t quite fit in and was desperate not to be found out. Meanwhile, he was just thrilled to be there. The moment in which he overreaches by drunkenly kissing Dirk is still one of the most painful scenes I’ve ever watched.
I remember watching that and being sure that this was the end for Scottie. He would surely kill himself, or get in his car and drunkenly drive off a cliff. But he didn’t. Scottie survived, and in the film’s denouement, he is reunited with his family. He got a happy ending that many of the real Scotties out here in the world never get. This was the gift that Hoffman gave all his characters, and it was a gift to us in the audience, too. While not all of them got Scottie’s happy ending, they received the gift of being loved and embraced by an actor of Hoffman’s insight and commitment. Of being portrayed with dignity. Given that his talent and the demons that killed him almost certainly existed in some sort of symbiosis, it might not be hyperbole to say that this love eventually killed him. It would be unseemly to suggest that this trade-off was worth it to me, so let’s just say that I’ll continue to feel his love and his loss for many years to come.