Philip Seymour Hoffman: Ubiquitous, Unassuming, and Unpredictable

| February 7, 2014

On the set of the 1999 film Magnolia, writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson discusses a scene with Philip Seymour Hoffman.  Though the scene revolves around a man dying of cancer (played by Jason Robards) with Hoffman as the caretaker, the two are like schoolyard pals, nudging and giggling with a playful enthusiasm.  What should Hoffman do in this scene?  This question brings about many joke answers, with Anderson, noticing the cameras are on them, deciding to do an impersonation of Hoffman.  It’s been decided that Hoffman will, simply, walk over to a table and ever so slightly move an artifact that sits on top of it.  This, of course, is the exploration of the importance of the little things that make up a character.  Anderson proceeds with “how Phil will do the scene”: he walks towards the table, grabs and shakes the fire escape, elaborately studies a picture at close range, knocks something over, drinks and spits out mouth wash before pretending to be caught by one of the other characters.  The whole time, Hoffman is in stitches, and Anderson’s crying with laughter by the end of it.  He dubs it a “study in ham and cheese”, and clearly (and jokingly) alludes to an overacting Hoffman, but, even more so, is illustrating how much Hoffman is willing to do to make a scene memorable, how many ideas he brings to a role, and, perhaps, how unpredictable he was capable of being.  Because he was not an over-actor; he was a great actor—and, after his death at the age of forty-six, we’ve all suffered a great loss.

The untimely death of Philip Seymour Hoffman will be felt.  It will be felt immediately and for years to come, in all aspects of performance, cinema, theater, and entertainment.  Here is a man who appeared in over sixty films (and however many plays) in just under twenty-five years.  His range and versatility allowed him to become a fan favorite for virtually every kind of filmgoer.  He was an indie darling, a character actor, an offbeat leading man, a comic foil, an everyman, a selfless performer, a scene stealer, a powerhouse—just as capable of being ordinary as he was of being extraordinary, just as capable of being part of an ensemble as he was of being a star.  He’s the kind of artist that doesn’t come around very often: a vessel by which the viewer is able to project themselves onto.  He didn’t look like a movie star, he didn’t take conventional roles—he was willing to play the fool, the scoundrel, the loser, the bit part, the big part, etc, and, with the depth of his intelligence and sensitivity, was undeniably able to take anything that may seem unappealing on paper and create something that the audience could either identify with or be drawn to.  In going against the tradition of movie stars, he didn’t reflect the person you wanted to be, he, alternately, reflected the person you were—be it in your darkest, most uncomfortable, personable, helpless, happiest, angriest, or silliest of states.  When somebody with that kind of ability and ubiquity suddenly disappears, it can’t help but be noticed.

Hoffman had a lifetime’s worth of output in half of an existence, and managed one of the best track records of any actor in his generation.  He worked with some of the great directors of his era: Paul Thomas Anderson, Joel Coen, David Mamet, Spike Lee, Todd Solondz, Cameron Crowe, Anthony Minghella, etc, and many first timers (at the time) like J.J. Abrams, Bennett Miller, Charlie Kaufman, and even himself.  He acted opposite Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep, Edward Norton, Adam Sandler, Jason Robards, Joaquin Phoenix, Al Pacino, Philip Baker Hall, Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, Burt Reynolds, Alec Baldwin, Catherine Keener, John C. Reilly, Amy Adams, Nicole Kidman, Ben Stiller, Bill Paxton, Cary Elwes, Tom Hanks, Ricky Gervais, Jeff Bridges, Don Cheadle, John Goodman, Mark Wahlberg, Laura Dern, and many, many more, and always delivered what was necessary for the interaction, role, or scenario, sometimes outshining his counterparts, but always, at the very least, meeting them at their level.  He could hold his own in any circumstance and was abnormally adaptable—always able to be mostly the character and a little bit himself at the same time, in a way that is exactly what an actor should be.  There are familiar elements that you welcome, and always new ingredients.  Always.

I used to call him “the master of the reaction shot”—I can’t think of another actor with a bigger stack of reaction cards up his sleeve.  Just look at The Big Lebowski—when The Dude is introduced to Bunny Lebowski for the first time, and she makes a lewd offer to which Hoffman (basically playing a real-life Waylon Smithers) reacts in the most hilarious of ways.  Or in Punch-Drunk Love, the way in which his “mattress man” (a sort of Bluto-type antagonist) reacts to Sandler’s melee over the phone—not just the “shut-shut-shut-shut-shut up!” part, but the incredible response to “go fuck yourself” (watch it again if you don’t remember).  Terry Gross observed how, in The Master, he seemed to be able to blush on command.  His pratfall at the beginning of Along Came Polly is a real beauty of physical comedy.  His face in Magnolia when he looks outside to see the raining frogs is the first image that comes to my mind when I think about how the characters react in that sequence—he retains a twinkle in his eye through the tears and awe of everything that’s going on.  That twinkle was hard for him to remove—I mean, how hard is it to indict his suspicious character in Doubt?  He had a gentleness that was always apparent, a likability that was inherent, and a genuine, unassuming smile that was hard to resist and felt, at times, familial.  How heartbreaking is the repeated “fucking idiot” scene from Boogie Nights, with him alone in a car berating himself?  That degree of self-loathing is shatteringly uncomfortable, revealing, and devastatingly empathetic, and there’s one thing that can’t help but be acknowledged as a result: Philip Seymour Hoffman radiated with heart.

He came into most people’s radar with Scent of a Woman (1992), but I first encountered Hoffman in Jan De Bont’s disaster flick Twister (1996).  As a ten year old, Hoffman’s performance was delightful—full of life, humor, and personality.  His role functioned as the comic relief, despite the dramatic tendencies of the majority of his career.  Then with Boogie Nights and The Big Lebowski, he furthered his position as a small-time comic actor—despite his truly sad turn in Boogie Nights, it is mostly a very funny performance—with a “hey, it’s that guy!” status.  It was apparent early on that he had a range that was hard to predict, falling neatly into the “character actor” category.  And then Happiness came out, then Magnolia, and then Almost Famous.  He suddenly went from “that guy” to Philip Seymour Hoffman, the fan favorite.  As Lester Bangs (in Almost Famous), despite his character’s admission that he’s “uncool”, it was the first time Hoffman came off as exactly the opposite.  His casual nature and hip demeanor made him feel like the “cool uncle” to the central character.  As a result, despite it being one of his less revealing roles, it made the viewer feel even closer to him, as both a person and an artist.  By the time he played the villain in Mission Impossible III—the first film he did after winning the Oscar for Capote—my employment at a Indiana movie theater began to revolve around checking on the MI:3 screenings in accordance with Hoffman’s scattered scenes; I was that compelled by his performance.

There are three key films that provide the cornerstone of Hoffman’s legacy:  Capote (2005), Jack Goes Boating (2010), and The Master (2012).  Capote, because it’s his Oscar-winning performance (and deservedly so), Jack Goes Boating, because it was his one directorial effort (and a terrific one at that), and The Master, because it was his last major starring role (and one of his most towering performances).  In all three cases,  Hoffman played the title character, and there’s nary a repetition of nuance or methodology between the three—just complete and utter commitment to, if you will, the cause.  These three performances illustrate all the aforementioned strengths of his abilities, showcasing the variety of his output, the reliability of his craft, and his contributions to cinema.  His turn as Truman Capote is jaw-dropping and spellbinding, one of the most sophisticated and legendary performances of our time and one that elevates the movie into the realm of greatness.  Capote was a larger than life personality and Hoffman brilliantly brings him back to that same plateau of existence. With Jack Goes Boating, Hoffman’s tenderness touches all aspects of the filmmaking.  With the exceptional performances by the ensemble in a perfect marriage of cinema and stage, the film as a whole manages to convey the same sensibility as Hoffman himself, with a steady thoughtfulness and a hopeful twinkle amidst the persistent sorrow.  It’s the kind of personality the world of both cinema and society sadly lacks—we could’ve used more of Hoffman’s work as a director.

With The Master, it brings, unfortunately, the final collaboration between one of the great director-actor teams of the past twenty years.  Hoffman appeared in five of Paul Thomas Anderson’s first six films, dating all the way back to a scene-stealing bit part in Anderson’s 1996 debut Hard Eight (aka Sidney), and coming beautifully into the fullest of realizations with 2012’s The Master.  Along the way, Hoffman and Anderson did Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and Punch-Drunk Love together, and through their work perfectly encapsulated Hoffman’s rise from supporting actor to leading man.  They were an essential part of each other’s artistic evolution, and, like all great collaborations, it’s hard to imagine one without the other.  The absence of Hoffman in Anderson’s future films will not go unnoticed, but we can at least take solace in the five memorable characters he co-created with Anderson, and if he had to have a final Anderson character to portray, Lancaster Dodd (aka The Master) is a perfect farewell to a beautiful, rewarding, and entertaining working relationship.

What kind of roles was Hoffman drawn to?  What kind of acting tradition did he belong to?  The answer to both questions is that of an open mind.  He played complicated, flawed, often misunderstood characters, many that were of the caliber of an actor’s dream come true.  As a result, his path as a professional was abnormal, whilst remaining true to a certain paradigm of individual self-expression.  Philip Seymour Hoffman was a credit to his profession, somebody who took each role—no matter how minute—equally seriously.  When you can’t get Philip Seymour Hoffman for a role, who do you get?  Unfortunately, this is a question that’ll plague filmmakers, casting directors, and producers for the next several decades.  He was his own answer to that difficult question, but at least, for those twenty productive years, we got him.

About the Author:

Jared studied Film at Eastern Michigan University, the movie store and movie theater he used to work at, on his own, and with friends. He is also a playwright, screenwriter, director, and short story writer. His work has previously appeared on two other websites: The Man in the Movie Hat and The Hive, and his feature film 'Footlights' can be found on YouTube (for free!). He lives, works, reads, walks his dog, and watches sports in Detroit.
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