Remembering: Philip Seymour Hoffman
The first time I saw Philip Seymour Hoffman in a movie was in the Todd Solondz film Happiness. Maybe the most disturbing and dark movie I have ever seen. He played a creepy, sexually perverted character named Allen.
The second film I saw Phil in was Boogie Nights, where he played Scotty, maybe his most memorable role. The character of Scotty was a production assistant on porno films. They were a pair of brave performances and difficult roles and a hell of an introduction for me to an actor that would become one of my all time favourites.
Shortly after that The Big Lebowski came out and one of Hoffman's most popular roles was born. In Lebowski he played Brandt. Geeky, loyal right hand man to the eponymous Jeff Lebowski (not the Dude). Despite only being in half a dozen scenes, Brandt, particularly the way Hoffman played him, is one of the most memorable, endearing characters in a movie filled to the brim with them.
He was also in Twister, Scent of a Woman and Patch Adams. All of which I saw before, or around the same time as I saw these other films, but I don't remember him in them.
The next film I remember seeing him in was The Talented Mr. Ripley, as the snooty, effeminate upper classer Freddie Miles. In contrast to his last few roles on this list, Freddie was a cool slice of cucumber and nothing like anything Hoffman had done before. Hoffman was now officially on my radar as a major talent to watch. Already a supremely versatile character actor who had a propensity for stealing the scenes he was in.
Next I saw the Cameron Crowe rock and roll memoir Almost Famous, where Hoffman played Rolling Stone magazine's Lester Bangs. A guru to Patrick Fugit's babe in the woods reporter, he again transcended his small role by sucking all the attention in his scenes directly to himself without having to resort to overacting or flamboyancy.
By now Phil was officially one of my top two or three favourite living actors. I got excited when a movie came out that he was in, no matter the size of the role and would actively seek out his next projects. One day I was in a Blockbuster Video browsing their now dwindling used VHS' and came across a movie with Philip on the front. A movie with Hoffman in the lead role? Finally. It was called Love Liza and the cover featured a dishevelled, emotionally beaten looking man. I didn't read the back or care what it was about, I just bought it and took it home. As it turned out, it was an indie film written by Philip's brother Gordy. It was about a man who becomes addicted to huffing gas after his wife kills herself. I remember it being a striking, strange movie with another brilliant and soul baring performance from Hoffman.
I saw the next few movies he did around the same time and don't remember the order or circumstance but remember plain as day his part in each and every one of them.
As the tabloid journalist Freddie Lounds, who finds himself face to face with evil in Red Dragon;
As Edward Norton's best bud, who helps Norton's character ring out his final hours before a lengthy jail sentence in 25th Hour;
As Ben Stiller's bumbling best bud Sandy Lyle in Along Came Polly. A film which showed that Philip was just as good at comedic roles as he was at dramatic ones. He again stole that show and provided the film with its funniest moments.
Then I saw his follow up films with his Boogie Nights director and frequent collaborator Paul Thomas Anderson.
As male hospice nurse Phil Pharma, Hoffman's character was the heart of Magnolia and is unique in the actor's filmography as one of his softest, straightest roles.
Conversely, as mattress store owner/phone sex pimp Dean Trumbell in Punch Drunk Love, Hoffman plays a crass, creepy character who's two or three scenes are of the film's most memorable. Are you seeing a pattern emerge here?
Then I found another VHS in a video store of a movie I had never heard of, but bought because Hoffman was again in the lead role. This was the small Canadian film Owning Mahowney, where Hoffman played Dan Mahowney, a man who loses everything as he slips further and further into a serious gambling addiction.
After that, the gates blew open on Hoffman's career. He was by now my number one favourite living actor, my all time second favourite and soon the world would take notice when his next role would win him a Best Actor Oscar.
His performance as the flamboyant and strange Truman Capote will undoubtably go down as his most celebrated and recognizable. Transforming himself so completely in body and voice into the venerated author, Hoffman's massive talent and total commitment to his art was now front and centre for the world to see. The next few years of his career would be some of the busiest, most impressive and most exciting:
Mission Impossible III:
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead:
Charlie Wilsons War:
Synecdoche, New York:
Mary and Max:
Jack Goes Boating:
Ides of March:
A Late Quartet:
One of Phil Hoffman's last roles found him again teeming with his Boogie Nights/Magnolia/Punch Drunk Love director Paul Thomas Anderson. As Lancaster Dodd in The Master, Hoffman plays an L. Ron Hubbard-like cult leader who takes a wayward soul under his wing. Along with Boogie Nights, this is my favourite Phil Hoffman performance. This performance is so good in fact, that I would rate it as one of the greatest screen performances of all time. I've had a hard time connecting to the movie itself, but I will go back again and again just to watch that performance. To marvel at the heights the very emotionally and physically taxing art of acting can reach.
I've never reacted to a celebrities death the way I have to Philip Seymour Hoffman's. I've always said that art and entertainment is never just art and entertainment. It has a great power to excite, to enrich, to enlighten. When a master and a giant of an art form is taken away from us, it leaves a hole you can feel. A hole that hurts, knowing you will never again get to see that master share his gift and use it to enrich, to excite and to enlighten. The details of Hoffman's death are inconsequential. He could have stepped outside his Manhattan apartment and been hit by a car, had a fatal heart attack, or been diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. What does matter is that he is gone, which is awful. But to quote an Oscar winning movie from a couple years ago, there is always a silver lining. And the silver lining here is that we have more than 20 years of some of the greatest, most varied, most exciting performances in the history of film to admire and enjoy.
Philip Seymour Hoffman: 1967 - 2014