Well, fuck. I remember a few years ago, just around this time, hearing about Heath Ledger’s death and believing it to be some internet-era hoax at first. Yesterday was very similar: I quickly go to check Facebook and see a handful of posts that Philip Seymour Hoffman had been found dead in his apartment, and my first instinct is not to believe it. He can’t be dead. He’s too good. This is some sad internet joker’s idea of a good joke.
If it’s a joke, it’s definitely one of the worst I’ve heard in a long time – or the Great Big Casting Agency In The Sky decided to up its game considerably, because Hoffman was one of the strongest, most unique and least vain actors to come out of Hollywood. Here’s hoping he’s sitting next to Maximilian Schell right now, going through his lines with that half-amused, half-exasperated half-smile of his.
Like so many people, I first noticed Hoffman on my radar when I saw Magnolia. He’d been in earlier films and had a poignant part in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights that was indicative of the work to come, but Anderson’s Magnolia put him in one of the leading parts, and rightly so. There was something seriously weird about the performance, but not in the quirky indie style that we’ve become accustomed to; there was no trace of that cutesy self-centredness in him. Magnolia: now there’s a film that was almost impossible to act and act well, for all involved. In the wrong hands, its lines would be overblown melodrama. Its too-decent-to-be-true character Phil Parma, among many others, would fall flat. Not so in Hoffman’s hands.
By the time The Talented Mr Ripley came around, it felt like Hoffman had always been there. Even though it was only shortly after Magnolia, I remember looking forward to the film because, damn, Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of my favourite actors! The part was smaller, but it’s one of the most memorable performances in a film packed with unusually strong performances. And again, that weirdness: Hoffman could turn on the most disturbing brand of camp that shouldn’t ever work, but he made it work – more than that, he made it essential to the character and so right it hurt.
It would be difficult not to go through the man’s filmography and pick scenes from practically every single movie he’d been in; personally I’m partial to his shlubby teacher in 25th Hour, an underrated film and a beautifully judged performance, and he was fantastic in Almost Famous or providing one of the main voices in Mary & Max, but also in uneven and mediocre films like Red Dragon or Mission: Impossible 3. Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York is a film that works better on paper than on the screen, but when it works it’s because Hoffman made its central character inject an almost unbearing humanity into a story that constantly risks being tripped up by the meta Chinese Boxes it leaves lying all over the place.
For me it started with Paul Thomas Anderson, so it’s only right it ends with him. I’m sure Hoffman’s performances after The Master were as watchable as everything he’d done, but his Lancaster Dodd is all the proof that’s needed that American cinema has lost one of its most unique, generous and powerful voices – and while we have many indelible performances to choose from, it’s difficult not to be greedy and wish we could have had many more.
Rest in peace, Philip Seymour Hoffman.