William Miller: I’m glad you were home.
Lester Bangs: I’m always home. I’m uncool.
-Almost Famous (1999)
For me, movies don’t get much better than any of the confrontation scenes between Meryl Streep and the late, unquestionably great Philip Seymour Hoffman in the film Doubt. If you’ve never seen that movie, then you’re missing a slew of great performances, the best of which easily belongs to Hoffman. It’s a complex, discomforting, and intensely demanding film, in terms of its storyline. It also provides those scenes with Streep and Hoffman. When I saw it in 2008, I certainly knew who Hoffman and Streep were. Actors who reach a certain stature (Hoffman had won his Oscar for his outstanding, caricature-free performance in Capote by the time Doubt was released) sometimes run into problems with audiences. When an actor or actress becomes so identifiable to us, we can recognize them anywhere, accepting their characters can be difficult for us. We see them playing someone completely unlike the character they played in the last film we saw, but we can’t help but see the performer every single time. It’s usually not their fault. If anything, it’s celebrity.
I never had that problem with Philip Seymour Hoffman. No film better reiterates that fact thanDoubt. The scenes in which Meryl Streep confronts him about her suspicions are some of the most powerful examples of acting I’ve ever witnessed. Every time I watch that movie, every time one of those scenes comes up, the static surrounding their names disappears. I am completely pulled into the characters, into the convictions the actors have created for those characters, and into the words they are firing back at one another. It’s not until the movie is over that I remember that I am able to separate the characters from the actors.
I can think of several movies in which Philip Seymour Hoffman was able to make me forget who he was. Or at least, make me forget who I knew him to be from interviews and news stories. His association with writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson included working with Anderson on five different films (Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, and The Master). All five of those are stellar examples of Hoffman’s range, and of his ability to make everyone believe he had become the characters of those films. The Master will be his last collaboration with Anderson, and it might be my favorite. Hoffman could be funny or distinctive in small roles in less-than-perfect movies like Along Came Polly or Red Dragon. The Master was one of the movies in which a great deal of the proceedings is dependent upon how well Hoffman could captivate us with his character, based in part on Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. To watch Hoffman in The Master is to watch an actor who had the ability to go anywhere with any character you gave him.
Actors like Philip Seymour Hoffman are rare. The movies are filled with people who are extraordinary with a few personalities, larger-than-life individuals talented at creating variations on a specific persona, and people who tend to only look good when everything else is perfect. Hoffman belonged to the rare class of those who could be extraordinary with just about any character you could give them. If you were to take all the lives his acting revealed, and put them in a large room, you would have a madhouse. You would also have the most interesting room in existence.
Hoffman was only 46 when he died. Even with a career that included The Big Lebowski (a personal favorite), Flawless (his pairing with De Niro is goddamn magic), Mary and Max, Jack Goes Boating(which he also directed), Almost Famous, and several others, I don’t think we saw everything he could do.
The last movie I saw Philip Seymour Hoffman in was The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. I didn’t expect to like the movie as much as I did to begin with, but that’s beside the point. What I never doubted for a second was that Hoffman would do a good job as Plutarch Heavensbee, the new Head Gamemaker, who clearly has motives beyond his job description. In terms of screen time, it’s not the biggest or flashiest role Hoffman ever played. Looking at it now is a good reminder that he didn’t need a lot of screen time or a flamboyant character to be memorable. Look at early roles in Scent of a Woman or Nobody’s Fool (which gave him the opportunity to be punched out by Paul Newman, one of his idols). Hoffman’s roles starting out in the early 90’s had him playing pricks a lot of the time. He played them so well that I’m amazed now he wasn’t typecast. As the kind of sniveling son of a bitch that you couldn’t even stand to look at, he was great. If you’ve never seen it, watch him work in The Talented Mr. Ripley. I’m just glad his career in theater and film gave him the opportunity to be more than just a smug, manipulative asshole.
Not that there’s anything wrong with being really good with those types. I just think that there are too many actors who proved their talents with a specific character, and had to spend most of their career playing versions of that character. That’s fine, but it’s even better when an actor gets to prove that the limits to their talent are not easy to define.
I would have loved to have seen Hoffman perform in the 2012 stage version of Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman is one of the definitive broken down horses of fiction. He’s a man who goes absolutely crazy from trying to hold on to hope. Hoffman’s theater career consisted largely of rave reviews. Some of the loudest were for Death of a Salesman. It’s not the end of the world that I’ll never get to see him on stage, but it’s certainly too bad. His film career has plenty to offer, and people are going to be watching and studying its best examples for a long time. There’s still nothing quite like seeing brilliant actors in a live setting. Working with material of the highest caliber in front of a paying audience is something special. Like the best musicians, the best actors can show you something different every single night. Looking at Philip Seymour Hoffman’s film career, I have no doubt he was in that exact category.
The fact that it was a drug overdose that killed him is largely irrelevant. If you want to look beyond the work, then think about the children he left behind, regardless of why that happened. What matters to us is that we as people who go to the movies and the theater have lost someone we’re never going to see again. Check out The Savages or Love, Liza. This is a death that leaves a void which will never be filled.
Philip Seymour Hoffman died of an apparent drug overdose in his Greenwich Village apartment. He was 46 years old, and is survived by his partner Mimi O’Donnell and three children.