By Simon Miraudo
February 3, 2014
Philip Seymour Hoffman was a ‘great’ actor in the sense of the word that truly means something.
There are acclaimed thespians who only affiliate themselves with prestige pictures, like Daniel Day-Lewis; so selective he left the industry for some years to work as a cobbler in Italy. Their appearance in a movie gives its release ‘event’ status, which, of course backfires when that movie turns out to be a stinker such as, oh, let’s say Nine.
There are stars whose charisma can energise blockbusters to billion-dollar grosses, like Toms Cruise and Hanks, who know all too well what kind of roles audiences want to see them in, and what roles audiences don’t.
However, there are only a handful of talented performers like Hoffman. He starred in important movies, unimportant movies, big movies, and small movies, as title characters or as part of an ensemble, as heroes and villains and a variety of complex characters in between, and never saw his brand diminished. Audiences welcomed him any way and every way. His involvement guaranteed at least this: we were in for something.
He established himself throughout the 1990s and early aughts as one of America’s most essential character actors in some totally non-essential fare: playing a weaselly private school kid in Scent of a Woman, a slovenly hurricane-chaser in Twister, ethically-challenged journalist Freddy Lounds in Red Dragon, and (a personal favourite) as a depraved former child-star in Along Came Polly.
For the Coens, he was snivelling personal assistant Brandt in The Big Lebowski. Soldonz charged him with the impossible task of seeking sympathy as a prank-calling pervert in Happiness, and yet he did just that. And for Anderson, after making a memorable cameo in PTA’s debut film Hard Eight, he came to inhabit the lovelorn Scotty in Boogie Nights, cherubic nurse Phil Parma in Magnolia, skeezy mattress salesman Dean Trumbell in Punch-Drunk Love, and, most
recently, cult-leader Lancaster Dodd in The Master.
His graduation from ‘that guy’ status came in 2005, after winning the Best Actor Oscar for biopic Capote, wherein the sonorously-voiced performer affected a vocal lilt, disappearing into the famed subject completely. That performance – and that Oscar win – opened the floodgates. He went on to collect three further Academy Award nominations, for Charlie Wilson’s War, Doubt, and The Master (perhaps the three key pictures in which the mumbly actor was granted memorable, explosive monologues). No slouch on the stage, he also nabbed three Tony nominations over the years.
There are almost too many turns to mention: his electric work in Almost Famous as rock critic Lester Bangs; playing the passive, perpetually unsatisfied director Caden Cotard in Synecdoche, New York; the voice of anxious pen-pal to an 8-year-old girl in Mary and Max; the teacher nursing a crush on his student in 25th Hour; as enigmatic string-puller Plutarch Heavensbee in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.
His reputation, of being a predictably unpredictable and incomparably exciting presence, made him a household name. It was a hard-won feat, achieved by more than two decades of work on the stage and screen. His untimely passing, from an apparent drug overdose at age 46, freezes his career in amber, leaving us to wonder what the third act of his career would have looked like (and, much more importantly, let’s not forget, leaves his wife without a husband and three children without a father). Looking back on his filmography, outliers like Along Came Polly and Twister don’t feel like blemishes. Rather, they make it more perfect. Philip Seymour Hoffman was a great actor in the sense of the word that truly means something. He was great in pretty much everything.