Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 7/2/2014 (900 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
When the terrible news broke that Philip Seymour Hoffman was dead, the work that came first to most commentators' minds was Capote. That role won Hoffman his 2006 Oscar. It was also the performance that many Winnipeggers thought of as somehow specially ours, because the movie was filmed in and around our town.
The film follows author Truman Capote as he writes his 1965 "non-fiction novel," In Cold Blood. On the surface, it seems impossible that Hoffman, who usually comes off as a big, shambolic guy in a perpetually untucked shirt, could become Capote, who even in middle age retained an almost elfin quality.
Hoffman did lose some weight for the role, but it was by sheer will that he seemed to become smaller, neater, more tightly knit. He also worked for months to find Capote's distinctively high, delicate voice. This is never a clever impersonation, though. Hoffman comes at his character through an empathetic, inside-out exploration of an artist whose best work broke him.
Hoffman was never a conventional leading man, but neither was he "that guy in that thing." He was a character actor in the truest tradition, but he also became a star in his own right. If Hollywood were a better place, more stars would be like him, elevated by acting ability and not by red-carpet-ready looks.
Hoffman did blockbusters like Mission: Impossible III and the latest instalment of The Hunger Games franchise. He did indie films like Happiness and Jack Goes Boating. He played everything from sad-sacks to super-villains, from sweet guys to sweating pervs. You never knew quite what he would do next, but his name was enough to make you think a movie might be worth watching.
Hoffman worked with strong directors like Paul Thomas Anderson, Anthony Minghella and Bennett Miller. Occasionally, he did crappy movies, but even those roles could be memorable. He survived mediocre projects not by phoning it in, as some big-name American actors do, nor by resorting to the grand ironic scenery-chewing of slumming British thespians. He just stuck with his solid work ethic, digging deeper to figure out what he could do with what he'd been given, trying harder to find something real.
Hoffman managed to be honest in Patch Adams, a cringlingly false film. He managed to be fabulously human in Twister, a movie about computer-generated tornadoes. His comic basketball moves, somehow balletic in their badness, are the only things to survive the Ben Stiller-Jennifer Aniston wreckage of Along Came Polly. ("Let it rain!") Talk about bringing your A game, as his would-be b-ball star would say.
His range was astonishing. Hoffman could be swaggering or sycophantic. He could embody patricians and proles. He is an attenuated prep-school bully in The Talented Mr. Ripley, and a breathlessly ingratiating assistant in The Big Lebowski. As a passed-over blue-collar spy in Charlie Wilson's War, he has one of those typical Aaron Sorkin tell-off tirades. Words that with a lesser actor might have seemed merely clever-clever take on real moral heft with Hoffman.
He approached good and evil with an even-handed interest in the human condition. In Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, he pulls off brilliant work as a broker gone bad. (He decides to rob a mom-and-pop jewelry store that is owned by his actual mom and pop.) Hoffman could even scale up to the action-movie villain, a class of character that has become completely generic in recent Hollywood fare. There is a scary specificity to the badness of His Mission: Impossible III mastermind.
Hoffman never imposed an acting style on his characters. He seemed to build them up through careful, unmannered craft. The 2012 film A Late Quartet is a four-handed actors' piece about classical musicians. Music performance becomes a (sometimes strained) metaphor in this story, but the idea of the calibrated balance between passion and precision seems to resonate with Hoffman. He always combined expression and control, whether his character was deeply repressed or wildly raging.
Hoffman had the kind of translucently fair skin that marks easily, and it became a physical emblem of the vulnerability that delineates so many of his characters. His skin could flush with unlooked-for pleasure or get brick-red with rage. His eyes were frequently pink with unshed tears. Hoffman never cried gratuitously, but he was cinema's pre-eminent male weeper. The scene in Boogie Nights in which his rejected, closeted-gay character sobs in his car takes unrequited love from sentimental cliche to heart-tearing pain.
Some of Hoffman's best moments come with his sensitive souls, like his quietly sad nurse in Magnolia. But Hoffman could find something human and recognizable in even the worst characters. In The Master, he plays a cult-like quasi-religious leader, and while Hoffman clearly enjoys the theatrical flair of his character's manipulative monomania, there's something else going on. You sense that this is a man who in his 3 a.m. heart knows his own fraud and has to disguise it even from himself.
Ultimately, it was the tenderness that Hoffman had for his characters that made you want to watch him. Hoffman's best work offers audiences a better understanding of the human condition, and a keener sense that so much of it -- weakness, fear, confusion -- is shared.
When a great actor dies too young, there is often a misguided fatalism that wants to retroactively read into his work some sense of what is to come. People seem captivated by the idea that the pain Hoffman so often expressed on screen must inevitably end in his own off-screen tragedy. That seems to me like a cheap misunderstanding of his art and an even worse misunderstanding of the awful nature of addiction.
Rather than speculating about his death, I want to think about his work. Philip Seymour Hoffman's greatest performances will live on, not just on screen but in our hearts. RIP, PSH.