Philip Seymour Hoffman 1967-2014

 “Ron Swanson” shares his thoughts on the untimely loss of a MostlyFilm favourite.

Portrait  by Dan Busta -
Portrait by Dan Busta –

As you have no doubt heard by now, the American actor Philip Seymour Hoffman died on Sunday.

He was a giant presence in American cinema for more than fifteen years, following his breakout role in his frequent collaborator Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights; one of the performances that went a long way to defining his career.

He made his screen debut in 1991, appearing (as all American actors should) in an episode of Law & Order, and went on to appear alongside the likes of Al Pacino, Alec Baldwin and Paul Newman in his early, pre-PTA career.

Boogie Nights, though, as the lovelorn boom operator Scotty J. was the first time I noticed him and for the next seventeen years, I never stopped. Hoffman frequently played characters with things in common with Scotty J, and it’s remarkable how much his physical demeanour stayed the same from character to character, but he never seemed to repeat a performance.

Each character was imbued with an honesty, an overwhelming uniqueness and authenticity that no matter how many times his characters could have been described as ‘schlubby loser with sexual problems’ he brought something new to the role.

It’s easy to get lost in the minutiae of his career, the outstanding work in the bad films or the moments of unspeakable brilliance in the good. I’ll remember him as the blustering, righteously angry CIA man in the otherwise largely forgettable Charlie Wilson’s War, smashing his boss’s office window before telling him to go fuck himself, or as the shifty teacher with an uncomfortable attraction to Anna Paquin’s schoolgirl in the largely empty 25th Hour.

I’ll remember him in Happiness, a ruddy, sweaty, oleaginous mess, making obscene phone calls to Lara Flynn Boyle. I’ll remember how perfectly his voice fit the character he played in the superb animation Mary and Max. I’ll remember him effortlessly playing the glamorously posh Freddie in The Talented Mr Ripley, a role that seemed extraordinarily against type at the time, but now is just more testament to his versatility.

I’ll remember how many times his brilliance shone alongside, rather than over, his co-stars. Even as he built such an amazing career, he did so as an unselfish screen presence, who would bring the best out of his cast-mates.

Mostly, though, my memories of him will be dominated by a handful of performances, which showcased his progression from character actor to leading man. I’ve mentioned Boogie Nights, but in Magnolia, again working for Anderson, he mines into a character to stand out in an extraordinary ensemble. He plays a lonely, slightly nebbishy nurse, whose dignified pleading for help will be nearly unwatchable for years to come. It’s an even better piece of work than Boogie Nights: in a film where everybody is panicking, lost, and clawing for something, he balances that out with a quiet, dignified desperation.

He’s a terrifying presence at the centre of Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love, but their fourth collaboration, in The Master, is perhaps the pinnacle of their work together. As the charismatic Lancaster Dodd, Hoffman’s work with Joaquin Phoenix is exceptional. It’s Phoenix’s character who goes on the journey, but Hoffman’s performance, watching Phoenix as closely as we are, is tender, authoritative and quietly devastating.

He’s also brilliant as the bad guy in Mission: Impossible III. It’s the best villainous performance in a blockbuster (along with Heath Ledger’s The Joker) in years. He won his only Oscar™ for Capote (in a cruel twist, beating Ledger’s career-best work in Brokeback Mountain); it’s a brilliant piece of work, even if it won’t be remembered for as long as his collaborations with Anderson or Synecdoche, NY.

Charlie Kaufman’s masterpiece is the right way to end. Hoffman’s performance as the playwright Caden Cotard is so dextrous, so nimble and so brilliant that it takes a little while for the sadness at the heart of it to hit you. No other actor could carry the film’s sadness with so much assurance. In a career packed with defining performances, this is the one that not only shows him at his best, but as the best.

Hoffman had a life outside of acting, and our collective grief at his passing and what we will miss, cannot match that of those that knew and loved him. It is great testament to his skill as an actor, and his lasting legacy that in the immediate aftermath of his death, I felt close enough to him for the grief and shock to feel as real and numbing as if we were old friends.

Use the comments below to tell us about your own favourite moments – which of Hoffman’s films will you be re-watching this week? Which undiscovered gems should we be seeking out?

4 thoughts on “Philip Seymour Hoffman 1967-2014

  1. To my shame, I’ve never seen Magnolia; something I will rectify right away. Like you, the two roles which really stand out for me are Synechdoche, New York and The Master – but I don’t know how soon I’ll be able to watch the former, which was already devastating enough as it is. Thanks, this is a great piece.

  2. I agree that Synechdoche, NY and The Master were his standout roles but he really was fantastic in everything I’ve ever seen him in. He was by far and away the best thing in the last Hunger Games film.

  3. I re-watched Magnolia last night – a great film, though one which seems more ’90s by the minute (those frogs!).

    PSH’s performance as Phil Parma seems like the beating heart of the film, paired with that other portrayal of ordinary decency, John C Reilly as Officer Jim. In a film that is, as much as anything, about the damage people do to each other, deliberately and in full knowledge of what they’re doing, Phil is an uncomplicatedly good man – somebody who has gravitated to a job that involves being present at the close of lives, but who hasn’t allowed that to harden him in any way.

    That large, soft face in that turtleneck, those eyes reflecting everything that’s said to him – early on, when Earl Partridge (probably the opposite of a good man, for the most part, but who cares about that when you’re dying) asks “You got a girlfriend?” and Phil says no, you see not only hurt in his eyes, but acceptance, and hope, and a sense that maybe someday he will find somebody but he hasn’t yet and he doesn’t know why and he wishes he wasn’t alone. All that in one look. Also, a sense of humour in that he understands Earl doesn’t mean to hurt him with that question, because Earl is the kind of man who has never been short of girlfriends.

    Phil seems (I’m sorry if this seems hyperbolic – it was the impression I took away from the film in 1999 and it’s true now) to be like the film’s angel, a man born to soak up other people’s pain, to help them when they can’t be helped, to weep for them when nobody else is there to mourn. The final shot of him in the film, as he removes the sheets from Earl Partridge’s deathbed, his face contorted in private sorrow for a man he really barely knew, but whose deepest secrets he shared, is stunning. It feels like a role written for PSH by somebody who knew him well. I can’t think of another actor who could come close to making this fairly passive, unshowy role the centre of a film filled with pyrotechnical moments. Watching it made me horribly sad for us, because we won’t be seeing any more of this – the particular, specific, beauty that PSH brought to the very ordinary.

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