The Staggering Greatness of Philip Seymour Hoffman

02/03/2014 12:40 PM |

philip seymour hoffman

Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death over the weekend was a terrible loss for film fans, filmmakers, and of course his family. When friends, colleagues, and acquaintances began remembering Hoffman, 46, via social media on Sunday, I was struck not only by just how many people expressed their sadness but also by the sheer number and variety of great movies they chose. In less than two decades of film work, Hoffman gave a staggering number of great performances in a staggering number of great movies—because great directors wanted to work with him, and he wanted to work with great directors. In short: he was great.

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When he appeared in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Hard Eight and Boogie Nights, Hoffman was well on his way to late-90s That Guy status (like, “that Guy from Twister has a crush on Mark Wahlberg!”). Those movies hit theaters in 1997, and he followed them up with a killer 1998: a showcase role as a lonely obscene phone-caller in Happiness and a memorable bit part as butler extraordinaire Brent in The Big Lebowski. This would usually be the point where a character actor starts turning up everywhere, which inevitably includes some crap movies, because, you know, character actors gotta work. And indeed, Hoffman acted in Patch Adams, Red Dragon, and Along Came Polly.

But those few understandable commercial jobs are overshadowed by the many great films that benefited from Hoffman’s fearlessness, energy, and sneaky charisma. He was a smarmy murder victim in The Talented Mr. Ripley, a sweetheart in Magnolia, Lester Bangs in Almost Famous, a romcom hero in State and Main, a maniac in Punch-Drunk Love, a sad-sack in 25th Hour, Truman Capote in Capote (for which he received the Best Actor Oscar), Charlie Kaufman’s alter-ego in Synecdoche, New York, an Aaron Sorkin sidekick in Charlie Wilson’s War, a conflicted priest in Doubt, and a cult leader in The Master.

I mean, Jesus! Think about all of that. One of those movies is probably on your list of the best movies of that year, or that decade, or maybe even ever. Maybe more than one. Imagine what more he would have given us over the next 30 or 40 years.

His voice—low, a little nasal, sometimes sleepy—was ideal for the heavy breathers he played in Happiness and Boogie Nights. But he could raise it into a volcanic roar as in The Master or Punch-Drunk Love, or soften it to the tortured thoughtfulness of Synecdoche or Magnolia. There was wonderful warmth in his smile in Almost Famous. He was such a skillful actor that he commanded attention whether in a supporting role, a leading role, or a supporting role that felt like a lead. Hoffman had the rarified ability to jump around like that, with palpable electricity to his every mode.

It made him a perfect match for Paul Thomas Anderson in particular—he appeared in all of the director’s movies except There Will Be Blood—whose work has a heightened unpredictability and generally avoids conventional leading men. His Oscar-nominated role in The Master is one of his best: part great orator, part weirdo with a hair-trigger temper, part uncontrollable carouser. In Magnolia, Hoffman’s nurse character Phil Parma makes a phone call on behalf of his dying patient Earl Partridge (Jason Robards). Pleading with the person on the other end to connect him with Robards’ estranged son, Anderson’s dialogue turns meta yet still powerfully earnest:

“I know this sounds silly, and I know that I might sound ridiculous, like this is the scene of the movie where the guy’s trying to get a hold of the long-lost son, you know, but this is that scene. This is that scene. And I think they have those scenes in movies because they’re true, you know, because they really happen. And you gotta believe me, this is really happening.”

This is the scene of the movie where we think back over what we’ve lost and what could have been. Here’s a makeshift montage: