I broke the New Yorker’s unspoken code of ethics and had one of the most memorable conversations of my life.
I broke an unspoken rule among New Yorkers, when I found myself standing next to Philip Seymour Hoffman on a 96th Street subway platform in 2000. I didn’t pretend NOT to see him: I started a conversation with him, with a very brazen opener. I told him I’d just been thinking about him. At that time, so many theater and film geeks were: He was starring on Broadway in arguably the best and most famous production of Sam Shepard’s play, True West, with his then-frequent co-star John C. Reilly, the two alternating the lead roles, regularly and brilliantly, as warring brothers, Austin and Lee. Though those who saw Hoffman in both parts insisted the show belonged to him.
I realize now how bold it was of me to insert myself into his space—it was a Monday afternoon, his day off from the stage, and he looked like he could use a shower, a shave, and a day at the Laundromat—but it felt natural, and he smiled and engaged right away. We sat together on the downtown 1 train, and he asked what I did for a living. At the time, I was writing a lot of book criticism, which intrigued him because he was eager to understand the mind of the critic. He told me he was interested for two reasons, because he wanted to know what the deal was with New York magazine’s then-theater critic, the famously cantankerous John Simon, who had dismissed Hoffman’s performance in True West as “too broadly outrageous as Lee and a mite overfussy as Austin.” Did he hate the theater?, the actor asked, laughing, because that guy gets to have such an important job, and it’s like he hates the very thing he writes about. I responded that I’d had a running joke when I’d worked in book publishing, about a cocktail I’d imagined in tribute to the New York Times book critic, which I’d called the “Michiko Kakutini”—chilled vodka and more than a few healthy dashes of bitters. (That wasn’t a direct answer, I realized, but there really wasn’t one.) But he was also interested because he had just wrapped a film in which he played a rock critic: Lester Bangs, a man he could relate to for his passion, even as it made Bangs irascible. This was a man, after all, who had written the most scathing review of Patti Smith’s third album, Easter, because he thought she’d sold out, opening with the line, “I hate Patti Smith. She’s a pretentious wretch.” I thought he loved her, I said. He did, Hoffman told me. He hated her for that album because Horses had changed his life. That, he and I concurred, was the kind of criticism we both missed reading: irreverent, impassioned, urgent, sometimes messy (thanks to the days when people banged out their writing on a typewriter, not a computer), and authoritative, writing that made the reader feel like the critic had a personal engagement with the work and the artist. Bad work was a betrayal, and good work was a gift.
I wanted to tell Hoffman how much his work had changed my life—I’d only seen a handful of his performances so far, in movies like Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Happiness, The Big Lebowski, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and, onstage, True West. It was still too early before he’d complete even more incredible work that I’d come to love (e.g., Almost Famous, of course, and also Capote, Doubt, The Master). But I didn’t want to embarrass the guy. The fact that I’d broken New Yorker Rule No. 1 indicated to him that I was a fan. We came to his stop, and he got up, shook my hand, and said he’d see me around in a way that made me believe it. Because while we were talking, I forgot he was a famous actor—inarguably one of the best of our generation, one who’d win Tonys and an Oscar, and innumerable nominations—not because I lost sight of his intelligence, but because he seemed like such a regular guy. What I can’t believe, as we all are having a hard time grasping, is that Philip Seymour Hoffman is gone at 46, leaving behind a legacy as one of the greatest practitioners of the craft. As well as three young children and a world of pain as a long-suffering addict. May his memory be a blessing. And may he be able to rest in peace.
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