In memoriam: Philip Seymour Hoffman, 1964-2014

I’m moved to post a few words in remembrance of Philip Seymour Hoffman, the news of whose passing last weekend came as a devastating shock to all of us who loved and admired his work.  I can think of few modern actors whose performances were as consistently great, even in second-rate films like The Ides of March, Cold Mountain, and Capote, for which he won his only Academy Award.  (He was nominated for three others.)  When the material was middling, he elevated it; when it was as smart as he was, he could be electrifying, as in his frequent collaborations with Paul Thomas Anderson.  (They worked together on five films, and Anderson once said that the beautifully gentle character he wrote for Hoffman in Magnolia [1999] was intended to prevent him from being typecast as perverts and weirdos.  Whether it was Anderson’s doing or not, the range of Hoffman’s roles from that point on widened considerably.)

The taking-off of Hoffman’s career in the late 1990s coincided with my adolescent discovery of independent cinema.  I can’t remember when I first became aware of him, but by 2000 I knew him as the guy who had been in Boogie Nights and Happiness and Magnolia and The Talented Mr. Ripley.  By the spring of 2006, when he won the Oscar, he had become as close to a household name as an actor who isn’t a star can get.  I make the distinction because it’s worth noting that star power is something Hoffman didn’t really seem to possess and that he didn’t seem interested in cultivating—and that he was talented enough not to need.  He seemed to have achieved the impossible: he got by in Hollywood without prostrating himself before the press, without being re-molded by stylists, without compromising his intelligence or the quality of his work.  He got by, in other words, without selling out.  And he didn’t just “get by”: he flourished, building a successful career by balancing smaller projects and larger studio films like The Hunger Games, and occasionally returning to his roots in the theater.

Looking back over Hoffman’s filmography, I remember with fondness his performances as Scotty, the pasty, gawky boom-mic operator hopelessly in love with dreamboat porn star Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights (1997); as the pompous Young-Republican minion Brandt in The Big Lebowski (1998); as the mouth-breathing obscene phone caller in Todd Solondz’s Happiness (1998); as the smug, effeminate, cosmopolitan Freddie Miles in The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999); as Laura Linney’s fraternal other-half in The Savages (2007); as the shifty, tormented Father Flynn in Doubt (2008), in which he went head-to-head with Meryl Streep; and as the magisterial Lancaster Dodd in Anderson’s The Master (2012), which may go down as the finest accomplishment of his career.  The thing that’s remarkable about all of them is Hoffman’s unflagging discipline. Even in roles that called for him to be big, he was never showy—his characters may have often been flamboyant, but he never was.  I’m saddened to think about the many more of them that we’ll never get to see.      

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