In the weeks following his death, much has been said of Philip Seymour Hoffman's legacy as one of the truly exceptional actors of a generation. He leaves behind a body of work that is essentially undisputed by critics and peers as among the rarest of greatness. But just how rare Philip Seymour Hoffman was as an artist is often difficult to properly articulate, especially when considering the modern age of Hollywood and what tends to define a leading man.
The movie-going public usually gravitates toward the superficial. Top performing films generally have a commonality among them -- that what is seen is liked. Today, the most famous actors tend to fit within a certain archetype and meet specific criteria. They are, for the most part, aesthetically pleasing -- considered handsome or beautiful, with classic good looks and a specific physique -- to a broad audience. This isn't always the case, of course, but it is the general trend.
Often times the majority of actors, even the most popular and well known, seek and take on roles where they play a version of themselves. Acting is a difficult craft, and the majority of actors are unable to completely transform themselves in disparate roles that are a total departure from their true persona. Additionally, we often see actors playing similar characters (with slight modifications) from film-to-film and within the same genres. Action heroes don't typically take on roles that significantly alter their brand, and likewise with comedic actors, etc. That's not to say that these actors aren't incredibly talented. The majority just happen to fall within this general category, which is why an actor such as Philip Seymour Hoffman was such a rarity.
That type of actor, with a chameleon-like ability to become almost unrecognizable from role to role, is part of the smallest of subsets. And the difference is remarkable.
Such actors are veritable artists, in the truest meaning of the word. They lose themselves within a role, completely washing away whatever personal attributes they may have and becoming the character they are playing. This type of transformation is an extremely difficult process for even good actors, and would be impossible for the average person. Most people have a hard time simply meditating or clearing one's mind and becoming free of thoughts before falling asleep. Completely abandoning one's personality for an extended period of time is truly a herculean effort, and that's just the first step.
From there the actor must go through the process of discovering who their character actually is, and how to become that person via the aforementioned transformation. And to compound the difficulty, one must have the talent and ability to grasp and take on the personality traits, characteristics and state of mind of the character being depicted onscreen.
Shedding oneself of everything that defines them is arduous, and only able to be properly achieved by this rare subset of actors.
They represent a miniscule amount of the actors today. They don't have to be beautiful of physically fit. They don't have to fit an idealistic profile within Hollywood archetypes. They simply are who they are. That certainly doesn't mean that they can't have those traits, but it is their ability that ultimately determines the roles they take on and the characters they are able to successfully emulate. We can identify this talent by witnessing their remarkably different roles, each time completely and convincingly devoid of their own personal self.
These individuals are truly artists, and what we find with artists, regardless of the field, is that they are generally highly sensitive and often tortured. Why? Perhaps because they're more capable of feeling than the general person, and on a much greater scale. They see not analytically or with the brain, but with the soul or the heart (or whatever you prefer to call the non-analytical part of the human consciousness). That type of talent, for the most part, is a birth right; you either have it or don't. Certain people, even at a young age, are just brilliant artists -- singers, pianists, violinists, painters -- with talents that are non-analytical aspects of consciousness.
They're connected to this consciousness in ways we can't imagine. In so doing they feel, sense and see in extremes that we don't. They feel things that we can't unless we undergo the experience firsthand. They're able to have true empathy for any situation they're targeting because they have that connection, that extreme characteristic. Such a trait is both a blessing and a curse.
As a result, many artists function on a different level. They have behaviors that may seem strange to you or me because they don't function predominantly at the superficial level. They may be able to function just fine that way, but it's not their natural tendency. This burden often tortures these artists and history has shown that they frequently resort to substances in order to mollify that burden. Substance abuse and unfortunate overdoses can be a result -- with John Belushi, River Phoenix, Corey Monteith, Judy Garland and Chris Farley but a few examples. And with talent such as Philip Seymour Hoffman, it's a loss that affects a unique, exclusive and often under-appreciated class of actors. It's important to recognize just how rare Philip Seymour Hoffman was.
His versatility was awe-inspiring, spanning film and the theatre. Theatre acting is in no way a requisite for becoming a great film actor. But Hoffman was able to take on both with relative ease. Achieving a chameleon-like transformation to a character in the theatre is often even harder to accomplish as compared to what is required in film. With theatre, you're limited to a confined space, with a manufactured set on a stage in front of an audience that must undergo a willing suspension of disbelief in real time, thus adding another level of complexity. Such acting often has to be exaggerated while remaining convincing, as the audience is seated only a few feet from the actors and the action transpiring. But anyone fortunate enough to have witnessed Hoffman in Death of a Salesman knows that his unique talent and ability was undeniable. Such talent and ability is obtained by only a select few.
Phillip Seymour Hoffman was one of those artists -- the greatest of the great -- and when remembering him as an incredible actor, his legacy should be properly articulated. This class of artists -- those not even recognizable in their roles at first blush -- such as Daniel Day Lewis, Meryl Streep, Helen Mirren, Tom Hanks, and Leonardo DiCaprio, to name a few, are the highest echelon of the acting craft. They are the method actors, completely immersing themselves in every role and, as those familiar with this type of artist extraordinaire know, even going so far as to maintain the character they are playing off set, from pre-production to the final day of filming. The entertainment world lost one of these greats with the passing of Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and when we will see another of his caliber is a question only time will tell.
David Bergstein is the CEO of Cyrano Group. He is a board member of the Sheriff's Youth Foundation, an organization dedicated to providing Los Angeles County youth with safe facilities, planned programs, and the vital tools they need to thrive and succeed in life. He is founder of the Leonard and Sarah Bergstein Learning Center at the Conejo Jewish Academy.