I discovered him when my life was flowing by at a brisk and happy pace, where it was unlikely that I would connect with someone whose shoulders always seemed ready to collapse into the ground. But I sat and watched him in Love Liza playing a man whose existence was so fragile it had to exist as an emotional blur - any solidity would break him. Then it all peaked in one scene where his mother-in-law, played by Kathy Bates, finally yells in the hopes of stirring him from his quagmire.
I can't forget his look. He stares back, quiet, desperately trying to figure out someone way not to look through her but to look past her, scared of feeling anything other that the endless haze that he's made of his life. At a casual glance it looks like Hoffman is barely doing any acting. But slowly, in an almost impossible to notice shift, his shoulders continue to sink, his eyes line up on something inside Bates, and when someone else's emotions connect with his own, he breaks.
That one moment, frozen in an amber of pain, forms the template of his impossible talent. He transcended everything else that was onscreen and made his viewpoint the only emotional reality. There is no distance between the audience and a performance by Hoffman. His movements, sometimes grand but often imperceptible to all but those paying close attention, drew us closer until the barrier that separates us all completely shattered. He shared the ugliness of his characters with us so openly and carefully that once the anger or tears came we realized what he was doing, and everything that was once ugly was now beautiful.
Hoffman lived in that place that must have been a torture of perpetual contradiction, but her returned to the screen again and again to show us a different painful side of living that gives us grace. He may have ended Love Liza stripped of his clothes, but he was naked in every performance he gave. Capote found him balancing the vulture-like scavenging and high-class sensibility of Truman Capote with the man terrified of what he found attractive . Owning Mahowny had him embracing the deep focus and clarity of addiction along with the blinders that kept him from realizing the pain he was causing everyone. Then in Magnolia, my absolute favorite of his dramatic roles, he draws us in to the honor system of a man who has devoted himself to helping other die with peace and shows the sublime beauty of trying to be a good person.
His performances struggled with that dilemma that he became popular in spite of the frequently ugly characters that he portrayed. Sometimes people are angry with the way films turn out because images cut through the layers of translation that words put up as a barrier to keep us from connecting in unfiltered ways. Hoffman, in every single performance, transcended language, cutting directly through the screen to connect with strangers. His work stands as a defiant, "No," if anyone asks, "Are we alone?"
So deep and true is his dramatic work that it overshadowed the same brilliant honesty that he brought to comedy. Even his most famous comedic role, Brandt in The Big Lebowski, is anchored in the nervous professionalism he tries to filter life through. Painfully overlooked is his role in Along Came Polly, a grotesque work of sweat, dirty jokes, heavy breathing, and simple hedonism - a man that John Belushi would have spent some time palling around with on his way to the Senate. Even when the film surrounding him wasn't up to par, Hoffman found some kernel of truth to bring out to the screen. After all, would Twister still be in syndicated reruns if it weren't for his giddy enthusiasm at following around a sublime vision of destruction?
And, given his openness about the drug addiction he spent his entire career fighting, that may sum up his career best. He followed his destructive characters down to the finish, finding every wonderful thing to celebrate about them. Hoffman gave his life reminding us no matter how ugly we feel, someone loves you.
I loved him too.