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On the passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman


It’s been two weeks since Philip Seymour Hoffman died. In terms of the media cycle, that’s an eternity. News items come and go. There is fleeting intensity and then on to the next one.

For example, I live in Seattle, home of the recently crowned and first-time Super Bowl champion Seahawks. I’m glad we won the game, and I thought it was very nice when so many people gathered to welcome the team back to Seattle. There were some sweet Seattle moments such as the youtube video of the waves of exuberant fans waiting politely for the traffic light to change from red to green before resuming their victory march. Then it was over for me—a passing news item, an exuberant moment with bursts of pride, excitement, camaraderie.

The day of the Super Bowl was also the day that Philip Seymour Hoffman died. For me and others, this has not been a fleeting news item. Reflecting on Hoffman’s death has consumed the time I would normally spend thinking about economic news, creative breakthroughs in money and investing, or the like.

I’ve been asking myself why this is so. I’ve been wondering if there is some meaning in Philip Seymour Hoffman’s life and death that transcends professional and personal distances. I am not an accomplished actor nor am I addicted to drugs and alcohol. I have not struggled with the personal demons Hoffman apparently did, nor have I reached the peaks of professional accomplishment he has. And yet I feel a connection that I want to understand.

My understanding was advanced when I read Anthony Lane’s memorial to Hoffman in The New Yorker. He noted something that I now realize I admired in Hoffman, aspire to myself, and hold as an essential human quality. It’s the ability to be in the world but not of it, to shine with the glow of authenticity and personal truth while, in Hoffman’s case, traveling the paths of the mainstream film and theater industries.

Hoffman was not a classic leading man, nor was he in the somewhat amorphous category of “character actor”. He didn’t fit into a style box. He chose controversial, challenging, unflattering, complicated roles, and blew our minds with his enormous talent and commitment to his art. He could be like a chameleon in his roles and yet always true to his professional standards. Anthony Lane described it this way:

“What have we been robbed of, by his death? Not so much a movie star, I think, as somebody who took our dramatic taxonomy—all those lazy, useful terms by which we like to classify and patronize our performers, even the best ones—and threw it away.”

I admired Hoffman so much because he was not afraid to be different, unconventional and even unattractive. In his fearlessness he showed us the possibilities for accomplishment and excellence while being uniquely ourselves.

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