Along with everyone else who cares about film and film acting, the writers at The Dissolve were shocked and saddened to hear of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death at the age of 46. News editor Matt Singer wrote an obituary yesterday, but each of us wanted to offer our own reflections on Hoffman’s extraordinary career, and the legacy of great performances he left behind.
Matt Singer: When I think of Philip Seymour Hoffman, the first image that comes to mind is his portrayal of rock journalist Lester Bangs in Almost Famous. The film came out in 2000, during my junior year of college, at a time when I was just beginning to seriously consider a career as a writer. The film had a profound impact on my life, not because it made writing about the arts look cool, but because it made it look important—and because it treated journalists as the artistic equals of the rock stars they covered. The words may have belonged to Bangs and writer-director Cameron Crowe, but it was Hoffman’s job to sell that idea, and only an actor of his caliber could convince you that being the lonely, uncool rock critic was just as good a gig as being the swaggering, philandering musician.
But Lester Bangs was just one brilliant performance in a career that was full of them. We don’t talk about actors’ “batting averages” very often—their percentage of hits per at bats—but if we did, Hoffman would have one of the highest of the last 50 years. He was great in great movies like The Master and he was great in bad movies like Along Came Polly. To push the baseball metaphor further, Hoffman was like an all-star utility player; there was seemingly nothing and no one he couldn’t play onscreen—and play it well. He had the charisma to be a leading man (Synecdoche, New York), the intensity to play a diabolical villain (Mission: Impossible III), the chops to do dark comedy (Punch-Drunk Love), and the mimicry skills to capture the essence of an iconic celebrity (Capote). From tiny indies (Love Liza) to the biggest of blockbusters (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire), he could—and did—do it all.
In Almost Famous, Lester Bangs tells a young Cameron Crowe that he needs to make his reputation as a writer by “being honest and unmerciful.” I want to honor that speech by being honest and unmerciful about Hoffman, but in this case, the honest truth contains nothing to be unmerciful about. Philip Seymour Hoffman was simply one of the best movie actors of my lifetime.
Scott Tobias: “Young craps player.” The first time I encountered Philip Seymour Hoffman, in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Hard Eight, his character didn’t even have a name. It was for one of those speaking parts that have to be listed in the closing credits, usually by some anonymous, forgettable actor whom you don’t notice then and will never notice again the future. But I sure as hell noticed Hoffman in Hard Eight, playing one of those brash, arrogant gamblers that are all over Las Vegas and are anathema to professionals like Philip Baker Hall’s character, who’s spent a lifetime quietly playing the odds. In this sad, muted drama, Hoffman’s taunts pop off like the firecrackers in Anderson’s Boogie Nights, and they chip away at the dignity with which Hall attempts to do his business. That was the Hoffman touch: He set off small detonations whenever he appeared, and instantly amplified the stakes. He was the most electric actor of his generation.
A few more cases in point: As Freddie Miles, the blueblood buddy to Jude Law’s Dickie Greenleaf in The Talented Mr. Ripley, Hoffman sniffed out Tom Ripley (Matt Damon) as an impostor before anyone else did. He played a more noxious variation on Dickie’s decadent, old-money trust-funder, less susceptible to Ripley’s flattery, which a narcissist like Dickie basked in like the Mediterranean sun. Hoffman brought to the role an instinct for keying in on a nouveau riche poseur like Ripley, and after Ripley assumes Dickie’s identity, he picks through “Dickie’s” apartment like a happy vulture, immediately recognizing that his friend wouldn’t decorate his place so atrociously. Freddie’s instincts are strong—fatally so—and Hoffman’s drawn-out torments are the deliciously nasty sort only he could deliver.
Sometimes, though, all Hoffman needed was a line or even a phrase. There were lots of agonized “Pig fuck!” references on Twitter after news of his death circulated, a nod to his towering performance as Lancaster Dodd in The Master. Those two words, in the context of the film, are tremendously powerful and revealing, a hard crack in the slick veneer of a man whose charisma and persuasiveness has built the foundation of what will become a massive post-war religious cult. For all his intellectual force, Lancaster is not someone who’s used to being challenged face to face, and with Hoffman’s Tourettic “Pig fuck!” to a partygoer questioning his philosophy, we can see the wheels falling off—and Joaquin Phoenix’s disciple perhaps backing away. And in his last released performance, as the duplicitous game-maker Plutarch Heavensbee in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Hoffman has a line reading that completely knocked me flat. Conferring with President Snow (Donald Sutherland), he offers advice on how to suppress a revolution that’s building behind Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), and suggests juxtaposing happy wedding-related distractions with totalitarian brutality: “What kind of dress she’s gonna wear? Floggings! What’s the cake gonna look like? Executions. Who’s gonna be there? Fear.” Each one-word answer is sharp and terrifying—and lays the groundwork for a revelation that will surprise both the president and the audience.
Noel Murray: I’ve been trying to remember the first time I really noticed Philip Seymour Hoffman as Philip Seymour Hoffman: the first time I saw his name in the credits and brightened up for what was to come. I can’t do it. By the time Hoffman started taking on more substantial roles in movies like Magnolia and The Talented Mr. Ripley, he’d already been an integral part of so many films: Boogie Nights, The Big Lebowski, even Twister. And even in Magnolia and Ripley, he’s doing some of his best work as part of an ensemble. For me, there’s no “now he’s arrived” moment for Hoffman. I feel like I was happy to see him long before I knew his name.
I don’t want to diminish Hoffman’s ability to play leads. I can’t imagine how Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, The Savages, or my beloved Synecdoche, New York would’ve been like without Hoffman as their anchor, making pervasive misery come across as humorous and human. He had a knack for playing troubled Everymen, sympathetic and rarely off-putting—except when being unappealing was necessary for the role. But I’ll always remember Hoffman best for the movies where he just drops in for a scene or two (as the lecherous preacher in Cold Mountain, as the blustery mattress king in Punch-Drunk Love, and as a grumpy-but-helpful Lester Bangs in Almost Famous), and for the movies where he’s holding his own in a cast of heavyweights. Just think of 25th Hour, a film dominated by the stylistic touches of director Spike Lee and the charismatic performance of Edward Norton. Hoffman quietly works his low notes into the mix, commanding attention by doing very little besides looking beaten-down. He just holds down his corner of the screen, as though he’d always been there.
Keith Phipps: What I keep coming back to when thinking about Hoffman is both his remarkable range and and how he could never be mistaken for anyone else. Hoffman wouldn’t likely have had such great success if it weren’t for his highly noticeable role in Boogie Nights as Scotty, a member of the film’s porn crew/extended family who seems perpetually uncomfortable in his own skin and unable to admit his own desires. It’s the kind of standout performance that tends to get actors noticed, but also tends to get them typecast. Not Hoffman, who would go on to play both Everymen and extraordinary men of all sorts in the years to come. Yet there’s an essential Hoffmanness to all those roles. Some actors disappear into parts like chameleons; Hoffman convinced while also putting himself out there. Acting’s a craft, but the best actors put their soul into their jobs. Hoffman was one of the best. What he accomplished will not soon be forgotten, but it’s shocking to think his accomplishments end here.
Tasha Robinson: One of the things that people talking about Hoffman don’t ever seem to acknowledge is that frankly, he didn’t look like a movie star. Especially in recent years, he looked significantly older than he was—puffy and florid, with thinning hair and a thickening waistline—but even at the beginning of his career, he was no George Clooney. And I found that incredibly heartening. Because in an industry that’s usually obsessed with glamour, extreme youth, and a narrow range of conventional beauty, Hoffman carved out a huge career for himself, proving that it’s still possible to rely on talent rather than image. He played an awful lot of mournful sad-sacks, and he played them well, often by making them just a little self-effacing, but with a spine that kept them from being pathetic. But where most movie stars of his stature tend to settle into just doing one thing over and over, his range kept growing as he got older, and it extended incredibly far beyond the character-actor roles he seemed physically cut out for. Watching his career get bigger, more diverse, more exciting, and more ambitious year after year meant watching him challenge every stereotype about Hollywood. His work was like a promise to every up-and-coming actor: “Nothing about you matters except your talent and dedication to craft.” What’s most infuriating and deflating about his death is that his star was still on the rise. He was still getting bigger and better challenges, and rising to them. The industry has lost an immensely talented actor, but it’s also lost a hell of a role model.
Nathan Rabin: When I heard that Philip Seymour Hoffman had died, I actually uttered a very movie-like cry of “No!!!!” on the city bus I was on. I felt mildly ridiculous about having such an intense and dramatic response to the death of a celebrity I’d never met. But part of the genius of Hoffman was that everyone felt like they knew him through his work, because he was one of those actors who left everything up there on the screen. Though he played a stunningly diverse array of characters, Hoffman’s most memorable performances all seemed to offer an X-ray of a very complicated man’s soul. Like few actors before or since, Hoffman seemed to give everything of himself, every time around.
Now, we’re mourning all that Hoffman accomplished in over two decades as a screen actor—which is massive to the point of being almost unquantifiable—but also all that we will miss because he’s gone. We’re mourning the Hoffman we know from many of the greatest films of the past 25 years, like The Big Lebowski, 25th Hour, Magnolia, Boogie Nights, and too many to go into here, but also that we’ll never get to know what Hoffman would have evolved into in his 50s or 60s or 70s. We’ll never get to argue about whether his 12 Oscar nominations were deserved (like Meryl Streep and few others, Hoffman was an actor who seemingly deserved an Oscar nomination for every film), or see him deliver an autumnal performance like Bruce Dern’s in Nebraska.
We’re mourning a man who filled every role, no matter how seemingly minor, with absolute, terrifying conviction. Even when the films were bad, Hoffman was invariably great. I’m thinking specifically of Love Liza, a small-scale character study of a man addicted to huffing fumes that would almost play like a parody of earnest, painfully sincere Sundance fare were it not for the heartbreaking intensity and bone-deep conviction of Hoffman’s performance. He was a genius at capturing pain, anxiety, lacerating self-hatred, and deep existential confusion, at giving characters the appearance of a rich and troubled interior life.
One of my favorite performances by Hoffman is also one of his least-seen. In 2003’s masterful Owning Mahowny, Hoffman plays a seemingly milquetoast bank employee who gambles away someone else’s fortune in Canada in the 1980s. The character is the kind of buttoned-up square most people wouldn’t look twice at, but Hoffman made his banality and desperation riveting; he allowed us to see the hairline fractures in his façade of bland respectability, and all the places his character had been hurt. As an actor, he had a unique understanding of the frailty and sorrow of the human condition.
He was a man of rare talent and integrity, who could seemingly do everything on a movie screen, who could be a terrifying villain in a blockbuster movie (Mission: Impossible III), or a giant of the arts (The Master, Almost Famous), or a sad, lonely man whose vulnerability connected forcefully with our own. In my estimation, Hoffman was the only man alive who could play Ignatius J. Reilly, the tragicomic protagonist of A Confederacy Of Dunces, a character filmmakers have been unsuccessfully trying to bring to the big screen for decades. Hoffman’s combination of steely intellectualism and fearless, self-effacing comic chops would have made him perfect for the role. But now a Hoffman-starring version of Dunces will have to be bundled up and placed sadly alongside all of the other wonderful roles Hoffman could have inhabited if only he weren’t gone so soon.