I could be wrong but I’ll bet no one ever said: “Hey, let’s go see the new Philip Seymour Hoffman movie this weekend.”
And that’s a shame because the actor – whose tragic, stupid death of a heroin overdose more than a week ago still stuns me – was one of the very best actors working in Hollywood.
He was not known as a leading man, was not the guy expected to carry a movie to box office gold like a Tom Cruise or a Brad Pitt.
But nor was he your typical character actor either. Character actors are those chameleons you’ve seen a thousand times but you couldn’t name anything they’ve been in; the guy whose job it is to blend into the fabric of a film.
Hoffman sure as hell wasn’t that either. He played far more supporting roles than leading roles, to be sure, but he never faded into the background. When he was on screen, he made his presence felt. He shone through. He could play anyone but he was still always himself.
He won an Oscar for Capote and probably should have won at least two others, and there are about 50 movies you could watch to see the guy’s awesome range, but when I think about Philip Seymour Hoffman I have always, and will always, associate him most strongly with the films of Paul Thomas Anderson.
What a marriage. A brilliant visionary director and a magnificent actor. Here’s a rundown of some of the magic they made together:
Scotty in Boogie Nights
One of Hoffman’s breakthrough roles, playing a loser amongst losers in the late 1970s/early 1980s porn movie industry. He’s a boom operator, merely tolerated by those around him, secretly harbouring lust and love for Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler. His pent up desire, frustration and hopelessness ooze and twitch out of him in every scene. What a tough role for a new actor to play – to do something where you know you’re going to look your absolute worst.
Phil in Magnolia
Next, Anderson cast Hoffman as the nurse tending to Jason Robards’ dying old man, and who suddenly finds himself with the unenviable task of having to fulfill that man’s very difficult last wish. Magnolia is one of my favourite films – as bold, ambitious and unique as they come – and while it is populated with many lovely, endearing characters, Hoffman is, for me, the big beating heart at the centre of it all.
Check out the scene when he has to say “This is the scene in the movie where you help me out.” In lesser hands such a line could turn to schmaltz, but Hoffman fashions it into a noble, irresistible plea.
Dean Trumbell in Punch-Drunk Love
Hoffman’s pudginess and pale face do not bring to mind a villain, but Anderson had the guts and vision to give Hoffman a crack at being the bad guy in this fantastic, bizarre little romance. His mattress salesman/swindler is a vile prick who is, for a good deal of the movie, menacing. All the sweetness he showed in Magnolia disappears like it never existed.
Lancaster Dobbs in The Master
Finally, there’s the incomparable Lancaster Dobbs in The Master. His cult leader chews apart the scenery and owns every room he’s in, whether he’s being charming and seductive or exploding with fury. Love him or hate him, he is magnetic and commanding throughout, and he is a million miles away from Boogie Nights’ poor bumbling slob Scotty.
Three things you can say about these roles: they are all indelible, they bear zero resemblance to one another and, despite their dissimilarity, they are all unequivocally Philip Seymour Hoffman performances.
Not many actors can pull that off. Hoffman truly was a master.
It pisses me off that he’s gone. He had so many years of movie-making still ahead of him.
It pains me to think of all the “Philip Seymour Hoffman movies” that we won’t get to see.
Before I sign off, I have to include a link to another tribute to Hoffman. Peter Howell of the Toronto Star says all that I say here and more, and says it better. Check it out: Howell on Hoffman.