Dead at age 46 from an apparent heroin overdose…
A tragic fate for anyone no matter the terms, but it carries such gravity for Philip Seymour Hoffman. The instant I heard of this grave news, I found myself scouring media outlets and calling friends as soon as I heard this news trying to find any semblance that this was just a cruel internet prank. Unfortunately, that was not the case, but it still doesn’t make this situation any less unreal. Hoffman was rightfully considered one of our generation’s best actors, as he was an actor’s actor, capable of pulling off a wide range of roles, and often able to make his characters as much his own as they were the screenplay. Furthermore, he showed that you didn’t need to be overly handsome or fit to achieve enormous success in Hollywood, as his stocky frame and casual sense of dress made him appear as an everyman. It’s just simply shocking to hear that a man at the height of his career would find himself returning to drugs, an area that he had strayed away from for nearly 25 years, but there is a (small) sense of comfort when one realizes that the man has left us a huge filmography for us to still preside over.
While the man was as much a theater actor as he was one for cinema (so glad I got to see him on broadway in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesmen), I feel that he will mostly be remembered for his contribution to movies, and it’s simply amazing to consider that he was featured in over 50 films through a career that was hardly two decades long. Therefore, I would like to use the ever-ready film archive that is my mind, and list what I feel are his five most unique, winning, and mesmerizing performances. Whether my opinion on his career highlights matches yours or not, I feel that these five films are enough to showcase how versatile and important an actor he was, and one that will truly be missed.
5. Scotty – Boogie Nights (1997)
Arguably the actor’s break-out role. In Paul Thomas Anderson’s ambitious sophomore picture, a magnum opus about the porn industry, he cast Hoffman as a gay boon operator for adult films, and the actor gave a unique and sympathetic portrayal for his Dennis. In a film that featured a wide ensemble that featured veteran actors (Burt Reynolds), established character actors (William H. Macy), and hot new talent (Mark Wahlberg), Hoffman still stood out despite being a newcomer, and kept a similar flow going throughout his career. The actor would go on to appear in all of Paul Thomas Anderson films except There Will Be Blood, and this early performance really elaborates on how chilling it is to think that these two men will never collaborate again.
4. Allen – Happiness (1998)
Todd Solondz’ controversial independent film saw Hoffman playing the role of a chronic masturbator who makes perverted phone calls to women. It seems exactly like the type of role a young and struggling actor would take on in the early part of his career, but Hoffman just happened to make it one of his very best also. Realizing that the allure of Solondz’ script was not in how vulgar the character was, but in how this man was a depraved sex addict who really didn’t want to be, and Hoffman really did make us care for this sad young man who just wanted nothing more in life than to be with someone. An early gem that is very much worth revisiting now.
3. Max Jerry Horowitz – Mary and Max (2009)
An acclaimed claymation film from Australia, Mary and Max showcases that the man had great talent as a voice over actor as well. Hoffman provides the voice for the latter title character, a middle aged jewish New Yorker with Aspergers Syndrome who begins an epistolary friendship with an Australian girl. Hoffman not only nails down the accent and tone for Max’s voice, but he also seems to have done his research on how autistic people speak and act, and it certainly feels more authentic than anything I’ve seen in a live-action film pertaining to the subject (watch that Josh Harnett crap-heap Mozart & the Whale and you’ll understand what I mean). A prime example that you didn’t even need to see Hoffman on screen for him to make a strong impact.
2. Lancaster Dodd – The Master (2012)
Paul Thomas Anderson’s layered film demanded complex performance from it’s three leads that were ripe with ambiguity and mystique, which Hoffman astutely delivered as the film’s title character. Playing a cult-leader circa the 1950s, there was much consideration over whether Hoffman’s character was a fill in for Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard or not, but the film is far too transcendent to be seen as merely a disguised bio-pic. While a lesser actor may have merely played Lancaster Dodd as a false prophet, Hoffman instead gives us an air of uncertainty to the character, suggesting that he may feel like a slave to his own myths, and while the film’s real protagonist is in his apostle Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phonenix), that decision was in fact also influenced by Hoffman. While Paul Thomas Anderson was discussing this script idea he had with Hoffman, it was actually Philip’s suggestion that the film focus on the shattered war veteran, rather than the mysterious cult leader, and his “supporting” role for Hoffman just felt absolutely necessary. It’s a masterful and highly original turn from the actor, and one that stands out in a film that has no shortage of great talent on display.
1. Truman Capote – Capote (2005)
An easy choice perhaps, but it’s also un-arguable that this was the pinnacle of his career. Portraying the tortured and eccentric novelist, Hoffman hit all the tics and physical transormations necessary for truly capturing Truman Capote’s nuance, overcoming any hurdles the scripts at times tawdry material lent him. It won him his first and only Academy Award, and it’s what truly propelled him to super-stardom…nuff said.
R.I.P. Philip Seymour Hoffman 1967-2014)