Sunday, February 2, 2014
In Memoriam: Philip Seymour Hoffman
"The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone else when we're uncool."
As a writer, I pride myself on always being able to find the right words to express anything, but I must admit that I am at a total loss for words today. You would be hard pressed to find anyone that wouldn't rank Philip Seymour Hoffman among the greatest actors of the last twenty years, making the news of his untimely death all the more tragic. The truth, honesty and humor that he brought to every role that he played made him someone to both envy and admire, particularly since he made acting seem so effortless. He did all of his work before the cameras rolled so that he could just live in the moment on screen. Looking back at his career, and the undeniably strong work he's done over the last twenty-plus years, there is no doubt that he has left behind an incredible body of work that makes his loss that much sadder as a result.
Like most people my age and probably older, I first became aware of Philip Seymour Hoffman when he showed up as the sniveling and conniving classmate of Chris O'Donnell's character in Martin Brest's Academy Award winning 1992 film Scent of a Woman. He managed to turn what should have been a stock villain role into something much more dynamic and interesting, knowing that the true art of playing an antagonist is a commitment to the role regardless of how the audience will perceive your character. He would go on from there to play supporting roles in some noteworthy films like Nobody's Fool, Twister, The Getaway and When a Man Loves a Woman, but it was his supporting turn in director Paul Thomas Anderson's directorial debut Hard Eight that would change the course of his career forever.
Though his role was fairly small in Hard Eight, Anderson would give him a much meatier and more memorable role in his follow-up, Boogie Nights. As Scottie J, Hoffman played perhaps the most damaged soul in a film rife with them. His moment in the scene right before midnight on New Year's Eve when he tries to finally make his feelings for Dirk known and then breaks down in his car after his advances are rebuked is heartbreaking and honest in a way that most other actors would overplay or squander altogether. It became immediately clear why Anderson had selected such a talented actor for such a seemingly small and throwaway role.
The following year, 1998, was a big one for Hoffman, starring in two of the best films of the decade, Todd Solondz's Happiness and The Coen Brothers' The Big Lebowski, in addition to a supporting role in the Robin Williams blockbuster Patch Adams. He'd reunite with P.T. Anderson for a third time the following year in Magnolia, a film that has its detractors, but which I hold as one of the best films ever made. Playing the bulk of his scenes opposite an infirm Jason Robards, in his last role, Hoffman once again turned what could have easily been a nothing role into so much more with his commitment to a role regardless of its size.
The early 2000s were a solid time for Hoffman as well, including his memorable turn as legendary music critic Lester Bangs in Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous, and his fourth collaboration with Anderson, Punch Drunk Love. The former gave us his best line in perhaps his entire career which I quoted at the start of this article and the latter gave us a brilliant deleted scene that showed just how funny he could be, especially when he was thought of as being such a serious actor. He also sought out and worked with such brilliant directors as Spike Lee (25th Hour), David Mamet (State & Main), Anthony Minghella (The Talented Mr. Ripley and Cold Mountain) and went for broke with a memorably over the top comedic supporting role in the Ben Stiller vehicle Along Came Polly.
2005 was the year that Hoffman finally broke through the glass ceiling that had eluded him for his entire career, securing his first Academy Award nomination and win for long time friend Bennett Miller's directorial debut Capote. His performance as Truman Capote was mind-blowingly good, earning him close to thirty additional accolades for his transformational turn as the notorious raconteur. He would earn two more Oscar nominations before the decade was out, for his roles in Charlie Wilson's War and Doubt, cementing his legacy as one of the greatest working actors.
Now that he was in demand, he began to choose his roles much more carefully. He accepted challenging roles that the average movie star would scoff at, like his turns in Charlie Kaufman's directorial debut Synecdoche, New York and Sidney Lumet's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, proving that he wasn't afraid of any role. Even his turn as the villain in Mission Impossible III allowed him the opportunity to ham it up a bit, without losing any credibility. He closed out the decade with smaller roles in two ensemble comedies, Richard Curtis' The Boat that Rocked, aka Pirate Radio and Ricky Gervais' The Invention of Lying, proving that he was impossible to pigeonhole.
He kicked off this decade with his directorial debut Jack Goes Boating, before going on to star in two ensemble driven films, both of which made my Best Of list in 2011, George Clooney's The Ides of March and a re-teaming with old friend Bennett Miller for Moneyball. 2012 brought us his fifth, and sadly final collaboration with P.T. Anderson for The Master, a role which earned him his fourth Academy Award nomination, and 2013 introduced him to a whole new audience of teenage girls as Plutarch Heavensbee in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, a role he was set to reprise in the last two films of the series. The coming days and weeks will likely bring more information on the status of those films.
As an actor, you couldn't ask for a more enviable career than the one Philip Seymour Hoffman managed to cull together in a little over twenty years. That he managed to be so prolific on film, yet still make time for his first love, the theatre, makes his career even more remarkable. He leaves behind a partner of nearly fifteen years, a son and two daughters, giving his tragic death an even more human impact. My thoughts and condolences are with those he left behind in this terribly sad time. For those of us whose lives he touched as an actor, the loss is immeasurable, and looking back at his career only makes what the future could have potentially held for him that much sadder as a result. He was one of the greats, and to say that he will be missed is an understatement.
I leave you with his advice to aspiring actors, as it truly seems to sum up the way he managed his own career: "Study, find all the good teachers and study with them, get involved in acting to act, not to be famous or for the money. Do plays. It's not worth it if you are just in it for the money. You have to love it."