Philip 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 with an 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 2012 Broadway performance of Willy Loman, the protagonist in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman -- which won 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 that at times could have been a potential risk to the budding career of a heterosexual male actor. While not known to be publicly out in support of LGBTQ rights like other actors such as Alec Baldwin, Tom Hanks, and Robin Williams, Brian Klonoski writes that 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."
In a 2005 interview with Out Magazine, Hoffman stated,
"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 played gay characters long before his 2005 biopic Capote that won him the Oscar for Best Actor -- and long before there was any real significant sea change in attitude and acceptance of LGBTQ people as full citizens.
For example, in 1997, 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 at that time.
Just one year before, in 1996, President Bill Clinton signed into law the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), defining marriage for federal purposes as the union between one man and one woman. And while in 1997 the Latin American country of Ecuador had the good sense to decriminalize homosexuality, the U.S. state of Florida's Constitution Review Committee in a 6-2 vote rejected adding LGBTQ identities as protected classes 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 that year, even 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 that same year, in the Texas case of Littleton v. Prange, the Fourth Court of Appeals ruled that a post-operative transgender woman remained legally male, and her marriage to a biological male was invalid.
By 2005, when Hoffman's Capote was all the rage, a sea change had occurred in terms of some LGBTQ civil rights. Massachusetts had already become the first state to legalize same-sex marriages in 2003, and also that year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that anti-sodomy laws were unconstitutional. In 2005, the American Psychiatric Association voted at its annual convention to support government-recognized same-sex marriages.
Also that year, the American Medical Association (AMA) president Edward Hill, M.D. surprised everyone by giving 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 media and art forms assist in many ways our civil rights struggle. In reflecting on Philip 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 indeed helped our cause.
May he rest in peace.