Double Vision: Philip Seymour Hoffman (Part I: Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead)

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by: Derek Godin

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To inaugurate Double Vision, an occasional column where Juan and I talk about both halves of a thematic or stylistic double bill, we decided to pair up two films we hadn’t seen starring the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. Seeing as how I had already seen most of his major performances, I decided to watch what felt like the most glaring omission: Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, the 2007 drama that would prove to be director Sidney Lumet’s final film before succumbing to lymphoma four years after its release. The stench of death is all over this film, and not just in this particular metatextual context: Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is a prime piece of domino-effect suspense where it’s clear that every major player will meet a fate nastier than the one they were trying to escape.

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Part one of our first double feature y’all.

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Phil Hoffman and I had two things in common. We were both fathers of young children, and we were both recovering drug addicts. Of course I’d known Phil’s work for a long time — since his remarkably perfect film debut as a privileged, cowardly prep-school kid in Scent of a Woman — but I’d never met him until the first table read for Charlie Wilson’s War, in which he’d been cast as Gust Avrakotos, a working-class CIA agent who’d fallen out of favor with his Ivy League colleagues. A 180-degree turn.

On breaks during rehearsals, we would sometimes slip outside our soundstage on the Paramount lot and get to swapping stories. It’s not unusual to have these mini-AA meetings — people like us are the only ones to whom tales of insanity don’t sound insane. “Yeah, I used to do that.” I told him I felt lucky because I’m squeamish and can’t handle needles. He told me to stay squeamish. And he said this: “If one of us dies of an overdose, probably 10 people who were about to won’t.” He meant that our deaths would make news and maybe scare someone clean.

So it’s in that spirit that I’d like to say this: Phil Hoffman, this kind, decent, magnificent, thunderous actor, who was never outwardly “right” for any role but who completely dominated the real estate upon which every one of his characters walked, did not die from an overdose of heroin — he died from heroin. We should stop implying that if he’d just taken the proper amount then everything would have been fine.

He didn’t die because he was partying too hard or because he was depressed — he died because he was an addict on a day of the week with a y in it. He’ll have his well-earned legacy — his Willy Loman that belongs on the same shelf with Lee J. Cobb’s and Dustin Hoffman’s, his Jamie Tyrone, his Truman Capote and his Academy Award. Let’s add to that 10 people who were about to die who won’t now.

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Aaron Sorkin's obituary for Philip Seymour Hoffman in Time (via popculturebrain)

Paul Thomas Anderson, Joaquin Phoenix, and Philip Seymour Hoffman behind the scenes of The Master.

Philip Seymour Hoffman being a wonderful human being as usual behind in the scenes of The Master.

Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman breaking character while shooting a scene from Paul Thomas Anderon’s The Master


Paul Thomas Anderson’s entire career has been leading up to this moment, and what a moment it is. This is something dozens of filmmakers strive to achieve, and it comes in the form of an ambitious magnum opus, The Master.

YAM Magazine » Archive » The Master

Paul Thomas Anderson’s entire career has been leading up to this moment, and what a moment it is. This is something dozens of filmmakers strive to achieve, and it comes in the form of an ambitious magnum opus, The Master.

YAM Magazine » Archive » The Master