I don’t tend to say much when a celebrity dies, even if it’s someone whose work I admire. It’s always very sad, and often I feel sadness about it, even, as though a vague acquaintance of mine has passed. But when it’s someone you don’t personally know, I find it difficult to articulate exactly why a person’s death is so tragic and what their work meant. As well-intentioned as the tributes may be, they often come across as a bit hollow and repetitive when spoken by outsiders. However, I feel the need to say something about the passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman. I’m sure I don’t have much to add to the conversation, but I’d like to share a bit about what his work meant to me and to celebrate some of his many, many great performances.
For a long time now, Philip Seymour Hoffman has been one of my favourite actors. Maybe even my favourite, though I’ve never been able to narrow it down to just one. I’ve also seen him in more movies than perhaps any other actor. This is just a testament to the amazing quality of his work; when I see the name “Philip Seymour Hoffman” attached to a movie, I know that it’s a movie I probably wanted to watch. Of the 23 movies of his that I’ve seen, barely any were disappointments, and even in the few that were less than great, Hoffman made the best of what he had and still turned in a strong performance.
Though I’d seen him do comedic roles in films like Twister and Along Came Polly, Hoffman first really caught my attention in Almost Famous. Granted, I came to Almost Famous at the exact perfect time in my life (I was 15 years old, obsessed with classic rock, a young outcast with writerly ambitions and a love of Rolling Stone), so almost everything to do with that movie had a big impact on my life. But Hoffman’s performance was like this little oasis in an explosive and deliciously decadent film. In other words: he was relatable to me, where everything else in Almost Famous was a fantasy.
Playing the famously ornery rock critic Lester Bangs, Hoffman brought his small but important character in Almost Famous to life in such a fully realized way that much like the film’s protagonist, William Miller, I felt like Lester Bangs was mentoring me. And while William was the character in that movie that I wanted to BE, Lester was the one I actually needed to hear from at the time. In one of William’s several telephone conversations with Lester, Bangs says this when William admits that he has befriended the band that he’s supposed to be writing about: “They make you feel cool. And hey, I met you. You are not cool […] And while women will always be a problem for us, most of the great art in the world is about that very same problem. Good-looking people don’t have any spine. Their art never lasts. They get the girls, but we’re smarter.” Lester is the thing that keeps William grounded – even when William doesn’t want to be – and he was the character who spoke to me. It’s all well and fine to be Penny Lane off gallivanting with rock stars, but eventually reality is going to hit, and Lester is the one who will talk some sense into you when that happens. And Hoffman delivered that balance of jaded snark, wisdom, and warmth to a tee.
Almost Famous is still one of my favourite Hoffman performances, but in the intervening years, I’ve seen countless other great Hoffman performances. Take his Oscar-winning turn in Capote. Transcending mere impersonation, he once again dove into the character and pulled out something wholly human. This perhaps comes across best in his scenes with Perry (played exquisitely by Clifton Collins Jr.), the murderous subject of his book whom he builds an extremely complicated relationship with.
There are also his numerous collaborations with Paul Thomas Anderson, the most recent of which in The Master earned Hoffman an Oscar nomination just last year. Playing Lancaster Dodd, a charismatic cult leader, Hoffman turned in some of his most ambiguous work yet. Watching him share the screen with Joaquin Phoenix feels like a master class in acting. Not to mention his small but extremely memorable turn in Punch-Drunk Love. Say it along with me, now: “SHUT UP!”
Hoffman was always great at those explosive scenes. He used them sparingly, but they always cut right to the core of things. Take his performance in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, which may be one of his most underrated turns. He plays a quietly scathing man full of dysfunction, and Hoffman portrays that with alarming calculation and restraint. Suddenly, though, it all comes pouring out in one unforgettable scene, which may be Hoffman’s finest onscreen moment. The scene might not work so well out of context, and it does contain some plot spoilers, but if you’ve already seen the movie, here it is to appreciate again:
I could go on and on talking about Hoffman’s many great performances, and I’m sure other people will do so in a more comprehensive and articulate way than I could. But for me, while Hoffman always gave well-rounded, wonderful performances, he was also the master of commanding a scene, when necessary. I’m generally not one to focus on individual movie scenes, but half a dozen really great ones immediately come to mind when I think of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Along with the ones posted, here are a few more that I love (though unfortunately not all of them are on YouTube).
- Pirate Radio is hardly the shining gem on PSH’s filmography, but he brought this wonderful rapscallion vibe to his performance as a rogue radio DJ. It’s a fun performance all around, but one scene that has always really stuck with me is the scene where his character is sitting on the deck of the boat at night and reflecting on things. “These are the best days of our lives,” he says. “It’s a terrible thing to know, but I know it.” The whole scene is so delicate, and such a nice reminder of Hoffman’s natural skill.
- Hoffman might not have a big role in Boogie Nights, but he plays a strange, sympathetic character. Watching his harmless crush on Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler go horribly wrong is both sweet and heartbreaking to watch.
- Magnolia is another great supporting turn from Hoffman. In particular, his final moments with Jason Robarts’ character are especially touching.
- Watching Hoffman cut Ryan Gosling’s character down to size in The Ides of March was nothing short of spectacular.
I don’t really have specific scenes in mind, but Hoffman’s turns in Synedoche New York, 25th Hour, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and The Savages are also well worth watching if you haven’t seen them.
It’s certainly a shock to see Philip Seymour Hoffman go so soon. The loss is tragic, and his presence in movies will be missed more than I can say. However, if we can find a consolation as fans, his legacy is a great one. He made more fantastic movies in his too-short life than most will make in their entire career. His filmography is expansive and surprisingly consistent, and all of those great movies are there for future generations to discover and love. Rest in peace, Mr. Hoffman, and thank you for the countless hours of fun spent watching your work.