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We’re used to seeing Philip Seymour Hoffman disappear. He disappeared behind dark-rimmed glasses and a whimper, way down in the soul of Truman Capote. He disappeared under scraggly hair and a moustache as a wisdom-spouting Lester Bangs. He disappeared in a polyester Oakland A’s jersey, arms crossed, pouting in the direction of Billy Beane. He disappeared with a bob haircut and a tank top, holding a boom on a porno set, lusting after Dirk Diggler.
And then he disappeared on February 2, 2014, inside a standard issue black body bag, horizontal, strapped to a gurney, rolling out of his New York City apartment under camera flashes.
What’s most troubling about watching Hoffman in the new film A Most Wanted Man—one of his final roles—is that, for the first time in his two-decades-and-change career, Philip Seymour Hoffman looks like himself. When we watch him huff and wobble through the streets of Hamburg, we’re watching a fictional performance from a real-life man who was rapidly deteriorating, and would soon be dead.
In the film, based off the John le Carre novel of the same title, Hoffman stars as Gunther Bachmann, a weathered German spy. Not weathered in the Robert Redford way. There is no poise. He’s beaten down, ghostly white, stubbled. A round head and a fleshy jowl. His gut curls over his waist like a melting Buddha candle.
Hoffman’s character could most easily be described as an antihero, but it’s hard to root for him. He’s a loner with seemingly no personal life, married to his work, perpetually getting shit on by forces greater than himself. He doesn’t do this job for glory—whatever little glory there is—and, at one point, in conversation with an American of the same trade, he admits that he doesn’t even know why he does this type of work anymore. But he’s good at it, more or less, and it consumes him. He’s searching for something, though what is intentionally unclear. His eyes are tired and removed from almost every scene. Even his pigment feels in stark contrast to the rest of the cast (not least, bleached blonde Rachel McAdams). He’s just not all there.
In a recent essay in The New York Times, John le Carre, the author of the film’s source material, waxed poetic about watching one of the greatest actors of the modern era bring his words to life. For as good as he was, PSH couldn’t do a proper German accent, and the film is a little worse for it. But as le Carre writes:
He made his voice the only authentic one, the lonely one, the odd one out, the one you depended on amid all the others.
And, perhaps more hauntingly:
Whenever he left the room, you were afraid you’d seen the last of him. And if that sounds like wisdom after the event, it isn’t. Philip was burning himself out before your eyes.
He’s smoking in almost every scene. Not just inhaling, but forcefully sucking the tobacco through the filter and deep into his lungs. He’s wheezing. He’s ordering black coffee at any place that sells it, then pouring whiskey in the cup on at least one occasion. Hoffman maintained sobriety for 23 years before relapsing in 2013. When they found him on his bathroom floor, there was a needle dangling from his arm.
I was among the vulture press outside 35 Bethune Street, an otherwise quiet block in the West Village, when the Crime Scene Unit arrived. It was a weirdly temperate afternoon in the dead of winter, the kind of day on which PSH used to ride his bike through that particular part of Lower Manhattan. As I approached his street, there was an eerie hush among the gathering neighbors, fans, and paparazzi—just over a dozen people at first. Two bored NYPD officers guarded the entrance to his building; a bouquet of white roses rested against the door next to them. The vulture press arrived in fives and tens, awkwardly grinning and passing rumors. News vans raised antennas for remote broadcasts, on-air reporters stared at their smartphones looking at unconfirmed reports on Twitter. Two detectives in ties and trench coats exited the building and said nothing. By now there was yellow tape blocking off each end of the street; the sidewalk gawkers had surged past one hundred. An NYPD truck arrived to erect steel blockades, corralling the masses for the next indefinite amount of hours. The police escorted an old lady with a walker down the middle of the street so she could get to her apartment. A neighbor crouched on his fire escape and peered down at the scene, a white dog resting in his lap. All the while, we stared at a brick building, looking up at the fourth floor, trying to figure out which unit was his. A Fox News reporter next to me audibly wondered if “the body” was still inside.
The dark comedic tension that resides on both sides of death permeated the air that Sunday — Super Bowl Sunday. Hoffman rented this apartment on Bethune Street, away from his wife and kids, because she kicked him out of the house after his relapse. As photographers next to me switched lenses and glanced at their first frames, one shooter sighed and said to his competitor: “You thought you were gonna be at the Meadowlands, right?” They both laughed. The Seahawks were preparing to route the Broncos just across the river, and these guys were hoping to get a body shot of a dead heroin addict.
There’s a scene in the film where Hoffman sits alone at a dive bar. He’s in a booth, drinking whiskey, unnoticed through a cloud of cigarette smoke and humming neon — the sort of place you’d expect to find in the Deep South. He stares into the bottom of his glass, and he’s eventually joined by a woman whom he doesn’t much feel like talking to. It doesn’t look like he’s acting. Which is why this film, despite its flaws, will make a lasting impact. When you watch this movie, you’re watching Philip Seymour Hoffman die.
On January 30, Hoffman was spotted in a bar in downtown Atlanta. He was in town shooting The Hunger Games. TMZ published the grainy photo, along with witness accounts of his “multiple trips to the bathroom.” It’s the type of tabloid speculation that you usually brush off after a cursory glance. Three days after that photo was taken, I stood on a crowded New York sidewalk and watched two crime scene specialists in full-body white suits climb out of a van. They rolled a gurney out of the back and walked it through the building’s front door. Philip Seymour Hoffman was inside, four flights up, his large, fleshy body sprawled out on the bathroom floor. But the man we revered — the antihero — had disappeared long ago.