The Oscar winner had a transformative magic, a talent that now will never be fully realized

By Alynda Wheat
February 02, 2014 03:40 PM
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Philip Seymour Hoffman, who was found dead Sunday of an apparent drug overdose, was among the most acclaimed actors of Hollywood and Broadway. PEOPLE movie critic Alynda Wheat has this remembrance.

It was a gray New York City afternoon several years ago that I ran into Philip Seymour Hoffman. It was a brief encounter – as he emerged from a cab at the corner of 50th Street and 6th Avenue, I told him how much I admired his work and he responded graciously. I remember being struck, though, by the fact that he wasn t the 6’4″ mountain of a man I d concocted in my head (an image summoned in spite of the fact that he triumphantly played the diminutive Truman Capote a few years prior). No, he was only a giant onscreen. In real life, we now know, he was all too human.

Don t overlook that transformative magic of Hoffman s, because it speaks to his particular genius. The man who could turn himself into a physical manifestation of menace as a cult leader in 2012 s The Master (for which he received one of his four Oscar nominations) was the same one who embodied vulnerability in Boogie Nights and Flawless and for his Oscar-winning turn in Capote. He was both in his directorial debut, 2010’s Jack Goes Boating, combining an oafish awkwardness (not to mention latent rage) with a desire to do nothing more than love and be loved by a damaged woman.

What never changed, though, was the fierce intelligence he carried into each role. His slyness as Plutarch Heavensbee in The Hunger Games series (which was still filming at the time of his death), echoes the crackling machinations of his wily political operative in The Ides of March or his Mission: Impossible III villain. Can anyone who saw Doubt have any equivocation about his ability to summon an audience s absolute empathy, while also stirring our deepest fears?

What we ve lost in Philip Seymour Hoffman is an actor of tremendous bravery; someone willing to look like a human being still in progress – or as his Lester Bangs would put it in Almost Famous (’00), someone “uncool.” That of course belies the truth: He was a deeply cool actor, one who gave the sense of knowing more than he told, of having plenty more where that came from. The heartbreak is that we ll never see it.