Phillip Seymour Hoffman is inarguably one of the finest stage and screen actors of his generation. His dramatic and untimely death due to an apparent accidental heroin overdose leaves his fans not only shocked by how he died (a hypodermic needle in his arm), but also leaves us shocked in how his death now leaves us with an everlasting insatiable desire for more performances by him.
As a consummate performer, Hoffman’s body of work adds up to more than fifty films in an acting career than began in 1991 with the little known independently produced black-and-white film “Triple Bogey on a Par Five Hole.” As a character actor Mr. Hoffman portrayed a wide range of eccentric and motley characters from his recent 2012 Broadway performance of Willy Loman, the protagonist in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” winning him a third Tony Award nomination for Best Actor in a Play to his beginning years in 1992 in small roles in “Leap of Faith,” and “Scent of a Woman.”
As a thespian who never shied away from challenging or controversial roles what’s not mentioned much or lauded in Mr. Hoffman’s repertoire is the many gay-themed roles and movies he did at times that could have been a potential risk to his beginning career as a heterosexual man. Not known to be publicly out on LGBTQ rights like his straight colleagues in the business such as Alec Baldwin, Tom Hanks, and Robin Williams, to name a few, Hoffman, in his quiet and unassuming way and through his inimitable style, “brought nuance to LGBT roles throughout his career, elevating their status in popular cinema,” Brian Klonoski wrote in “Why Phillip Seymour Hoffman Was an LGBT Hero.”
“When I play somebody gay, I never think of it as “I’m playing a gay character.” It’s interesting to play all the different aspects of the character. There’s something else about the character that’s pulling me there that I identify with. With Flawless, it’s not that he was gay—I found it more interesting that he thought he was a woman. With Capote, it’s the story that he had as an artist. And in Boogie Nights, he was so completely stunted I don’t even think he knew his attractions were of a gay nature,” Hoffman stated in a 2005 interview with OUT magazine
Long before Hoffman’s 2005 biopic “Capote” that won him the Oscar for best actor, he played gay characters before there wasn’t any real significant sea change in attitude and acceptance of LGBTQ people as full citizens.
For example, in 1997, the year Hoffman portrayed, Scotty, a gay boom operator in loved with Dirk, a heterosexual cocaine and methamphetamine addict in “Boogie Nights,”,things were not looking too rosy for LGBTQ Americans.
In just the year before, 1996, President Bill Clinton signed into law the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), legally defining marriage as the union between one man and one woman. And in 1997 while the Latin American country, Ecuador, had the good sense to decriminalized homosexuality, Florida’s Constitution Review Committee in a 6-2 vote rejected adding LGBTQ sexual orientation as a criterion for protection in the state constitution.
In 1999 when Hoffman portrayed Freddie Miles, in “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” and Rusty, a flamboyant diva drag queen in the film “Flawless, “ there still wasn’t much acceptance of or protection for LGBTQ Americans. As a-matter-of-fact, discrimination against us, if intended to be on the down-low, couldn’t stay in the closet because of the social stature of one particular person doing it.
An October 1999 issue of the Washington Times reported George W. Bush ensuring his homophobic and religiously conservative base that if elected president he would not “knowingly” appoint any LGBTQ persons as ambassadors or department heads in his administration.
And, in the Texas case “Littleton v. Prange” of that same year, the Fourth Court of Appeals ruled that a post-operative transgender woman remains legally male, and her marriage to a biological male was invalid.
By 2005, when Hoffman’s 2005 biopic “Capote” was all the rage, a sea change had occurred in terms of some LGBTQ civil rights. Massachusetts had become the first state to legalize same-sex marriages in 2003, and also that year, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that anti-sodomy laws were unconstitutional. And in 2005, the American Psychiatric Association voted at its annual convention to support government-recognized same-sex marriages. And also that year, the American Medical Association (AMA) president Edward Hill, MD, to the surprise of everyone, gave a keynote address to the delegates of the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association (GLMA) acknowledging past homophobic and unfair treatment of GLMA members and LGBTQ physicians by the AMA.
Visibility of LGBTQ characters portrayed in various medium and art forms assist in many ways our civil rights struggle.
In reflecting on Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s short time with us, he may not have been a public advocate for LGBTQ rights, but I can’t help but think that his many gay-themed roles and movies portraying of us indeed helped our cause.