Philip Seymour Hoffman died over a week ago, and, as an admirer, I’m really only now coming to terms with it. My initial disbelief quickly morphed into anger when I heard he’d fallen prey to a drug overdose at age 46, and I imagine, or hope, that I wasn’t the last remaining person to know of Hoffman’s struggles with drugs only in passing. As some news outlets lingered on salacious details and others posited him as a classic cautionary tale, I tried increasingly to shut out much of the noise, because the whole thing just struck me as unbelievably sad. I mourned for his family and friends, of course, but the loss I felt was concentrated more in the artistic realm, where he had so thrived as a shining ensemble star in some of the best independent and/or lower profile films of my life. I always prefer with artists to focus on the work, unless real life intrudes to a degree that is unavoidable. I read very few interviews with or profiles of Philip Seymour Hoffman over the years. I knew him foremost as a pudgy, blond, red-faced dreamer or schemer, slinking around the periphery of some of my favorite ever movies, touching lives or haunting them, or merely witnessing and informing them, brightening the corners or muddying the works, but forever making those films, and everyone within them, better.
I’ve read more than one online obituary that asserted Hoffman’s credits read like a shortlist of the best American cinema of the last 25 years. While that’s obviously an overstatement, it’s hard to make too strong a rebuttal. One does not merely hang around and blunder into a roll call of films that includes Boogie Nights, The Big Lebowski, Happiness, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Magnolia, Almost Famous, Punch Drunk Love, 25th Hour, Capote, Synecdoche, New York, Moneyball, and The Master. Hoffman was nominated for four Oscars, three as supporting actor for Doubt, Charlie Wilson’s War, and his unforgettable portrayal of multi-layered cult leader Lancaster Dodd in The Master, and won his lone statue as best actor, playing the famous effete socialite turned opportunistic crime writer Truman Capote in Capote, a part that allowed him the sort of full role immersion (Capote’s designer wardrobe, formidable charm, flamboyant personal manner and near-inimitable accent) that so often sways Academy voters to an actor’s cause. It was surely his highest profile triumph, and the perfect cap on more than a decade’s worth of exquisite character acting.
In truth, Hoffman brought the same conviction to almost every role, be it a smarmy tabloid journalist (Red Dragon), an inept but manipulative thief (Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead), a gambling addict at the fraying end of his rope (Owning Mahoney), or a gentle playwright struggling to overcome Hollywood cynicism (State and Main). He was venomous and astonishing as an uncompromising arms dealer in Mission: Impossible III, his villainous performance singled out for special notice that the film itself neither warranted nor received. Almost everyone has probably seen at least one Philip Seymour Hoffman performance – either his overenthusiastic storm chaser in Twister, head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee in the Hunger Games sequel, Catching Fire, his awkward, tragic, love struck cameraman in Anderson’s Boogie Nights, or personal assistant and genial sycophant Brandt in the Coen Brothers’ cult classic The Big Lebowski. Even in seemingly throwaway parts, Hoffman’s presence commanded attention, and when allowed any room to flourish, his performances always exceeded expectations, to the degree that those expectations eventually had to be recalibrated. Though he later proved just as capable of carrying movies like Capote and The Master, he was never a conventional lead. His overall body of work has more than established him as one of a handful of the best character actors of his generation. Though the parts may have grown steadily bigger, his approach and commitment to them never changed.
Hoffman was also a key supporting player in two of my top 20 movies of all time. In Anderson’s magnificent (unless, of course, you hated it) magnum opus Magnolia, Hoffman played Phil Parma, a hospice nurse caring for a miserable, regret-riddled TV producer played indelibly by Jason Robards (in his own miraculous final performance). As the two men share a long, dark night of the soul, Parma, already imparting the most tender care possible given his difficult charge, makes it his mission to reconnect the dying man with his estranged son, an outwardly odious, damaged and deeply resentful huckster played by Tom Cruise. As he goes from witness to participant to helpless bystander, Parma internalizes his patient’s pain to a degree hard to fathom, and Hoffman loses himself in the role, which allows for grace and even trace sunlight once dawn finally breaks. It is a subtle, heartbreaking portrayal of a caregiver coming to grips with both the limits of his capabilities and the fragility of human life. It’s arguably the best thing in a movie that is already stuffed to the gills with remarkable performances and occurrences. Please don’t complain that the movie also contains a sequence where the sky rains frogs, because that’s all you can offer. I cannot and will not hear you.
In 2000’s Almost Famous, Hoffman played infamous, hypercritical rock journalist Lester Bangs, then a correspondent for Creem magazine, who serves as a sort of mentor for the film’s protagonist, a teenaged music fan whose persistence, passion, press clippings from local newspapers and a little selective truth-telling regarding his actual age land him a gig touring with an up-and-coming ‘70s rock band who are to be the subjects of his Rolling Stone cover story. It’s a fun part and an irascible character. Hoffman sinks his teeth in, and has a blast. This is also the definition of a role that another director or studio or creative team might very well axe because it’s not technically necessary. Perhaps in preemptive subconscious response to that kind of thinking, director Cameron Crowe instead added almost an hour to his director’s cut that made you feel like you were on tour with the band, awash in music and new experiences, leading that weird, intoxicating, gypsy lifestyle, seeing all those sights through a young man’s eyes, and meeting a parade of amazing, singular characters…like, for example, Lester Bangs.
Hoffman plays Bangs as curmudgeonly Buddha mixed with rock and roll evangelist, imparting life lessons to young William Miller via a series of late night phone calls. He makes the role his as he did every role, no matter how grand or menial, and he just makes the movie better. Philip Seymour Hoffman thrived in an independent film scene where the whole was always supposed to be greater than the sum of its parts, and he took that experience and passion and surpassing craft to every level of acting that he could, mastering them all too. His was an unassuming style, which served to make the bounty it often yielded all the more surprising. I still remember him foremost as that pudgy, red-faced dreamer or schemer in the margins, not as the nice but slightly aloof man who remained when the camera stopped rolling. With his life cut maddeningly short, his work can officially begin outliving him, even as we ponder the gap his absence leaves in the landscape of American film. This is sad in the short term, but is also the wont of all true artists. Hoffman was a sublime character actor without easy comparison, let alone equal. Whatever depth or shading a part called for, he provided, and whatever part he had to play, it always contributed to a far greater sum.