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Philip Seymour Hoffman: A Wasted Life?

02/07/2014 12:55 EST | Updated 04/09/2014 05:59 EDT

There is something awkwardly utilitarian about the term "waste" being applied to the loss of a creative talent. The word brings to mind a form of ill-bred accountancy coupled with a solipsistic regret -- an outsized reaction to a cooked dinner being thrown away. Certainly, it's more than an unfortunate occurrence, or a shame; a waste is that, and more. It's the squandering of something useful and valuable. It's a form of vandalism.

Philip Seymour Hoffman's woefully premature death over this past weekend, at 46, was an acute tragedy. The demise of a young man with a blooming career and three young children invariably is, regardless of fame and stature. In this case, however, the spotlight ensured that the tragedy reverberated beyond Hoffman's immediate circle, and stunned anyone fortunate enough to have witnessed his dramatic performances. Doubtless, his passing was a vicious, rending, shame.

The question of whether Hoffman's demise is a waste, as many have labeled it, seems related, yet distinct from its tragic nature. In the case of a private misfortune, only friends and family suffer from the shattering personal sense of a dear life abruptly cut short. To them, the waste is tangible and real. When the case concerns a movie star who occupied the place of public cynosure, the sense of social loss can never match the private trauma. Societal mourning beats a faster retreat than its private twin; despite the label "waste" being in public circulation, it is rarely deeply felt. The term, like the euphemisms and clichés surrounding death, has become shopworn. What, then, can be the basis for claiming that a public figure's early death is a waste?

To me, waste brings to mind a profound cultural loss, of the order experienced when Arthur Rimbaud abandoned poetry or Wilfred Owen was felled a week shy of Armistice Day. It is a dead and hollow abrogation of ability -- a talent which, were it not excised, would have almost certainly lead to the creation of great art to our collective benefit. By this rule, Hoffman's early death is inarguably a rare and painful waste.

There are many skilled and expert actors working in film and theatre who repeatedly play the same role. They may be very good at what they do, but fall short of dramatic greatness. Like good authors and good painters, they perform exceedingly well within a circumscribed setting, and are considered great because they remain within the carefully cordoned context of their uniform roles. Leading men like George Clooney, who unfailingly portray fast-talking lady-killers, frequently fall into this trap. Hoffman never did.

Throughout his career, Hoffman portrayed even peripheral roles with a preternatural, show-stealing depth. From the fragile hanger-on crushing on Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights, to Mr. Lebowski's cheerfully sycophantic PA in The Big Lebowski, to the smart-mouth firebrand CIA agent in Charlie Wilson's War, Hoffman never settled for old tricks. Instead, he played each character with masterful nuance, leading to performances so ineffably compelling that they often stayed with viewers for as long as the leads. When he had progressed to playing leading roles himself in films like Capote (for which he received an Oscar) and The Master (for which he, in almost any other year, would have), Hoffman displayed a virtuosic range and a perfect sense of character pitch.

Coupled with Hoffman's premature demise, the grim loss of his brilliance surely qualifies his death a colossal, agonizing waste. "I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher," he declared in The Master, "But above all, I am a man." That his passing will be mourned as if he were a man we knew, whose death had struck us cold, rather than another Hollywood character actor, is surely testament to that. How else could an unexpected public misfortune come to seem like an inexplicable violation of the moral order?

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