Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Philip Seymour Hoffman 1967-2014

During my teens, I first saw Philip Seymour Hoffman in the film, Twister, and I was as annoyed with his party-guy-storm-chaser comic relief as I was with the movie. Some of my favorite actors made bad first impressions. Only a couple years later, would see him in P.T. Anderson’s Boogie Nights as the awkward Scotty, a boom operator on a porno crew. I had second thoughts about this weird-looking person. He wasn’t just some annoying-guy character actor. He was a very good actor.

Many talented people in that profession are cornered into typecasting and never get to show their full potential. Over the years, through the favor of directors like Anderson and others, Hoffman did find more opportunities and his reputation grew as a great actor of stage and film. One could say that he reached his highest fame through both his Oscar-winning title character in 2007’s Capote, and his portrayal of Willy Loman in the 2012 Broadway revival of Death of a Salesman.

One of his most compelling performances was in John Patrick Shanley's Doubt as a well-liked priest whose work in a Catholic School is under very negative suspicion by its Nun principal, played by Meryl Streep. This was a very difficult role, I’m sure, due to the ambiguity beneath the cutting dialogue exchanges.

Some people may feel that his very best work was seen recently in Anderson’s The Master as an L. Ron Hubbard-type character in the process of gathering followers. His charm and ideas seduce people but he handles criticism irately. He disappeared into that role so well I have difficulty analyzing it.  

I prefer to remember him for his humble work as a supporting actor, which elevated every given film’s quality. Lester Bangs provided a degree of experienced wisdom in the undisciplined party world of Cameron Crowe’s, Almost Famous. He practically stole the show in Charlie Wilson’s War as an embittered CIA agent. Who would have thought he could play such a convincingly cold-hearted villain in J.J. AbramsMission: Impossible III? In Spike Lee’s 25th Hour, he continued his knack for playing a man living in shame of repressed sexual desires like in Todd Solondz’s Happiness where… uggh.

Those were a few random examples. I could list so many more. Hoffman had a unique screen presence. He wasn’t an impressionistic actor, attempting to imitate a voice or physicality, he was more often comfortable playing any character in his plump form within the limitations that his voice would allow and he knew how to capture a personality.

His death is untimely and a surprise. In an interview with Terry Gross, he uncomfortably responded to questions of his past alcoholism by saying that he didn’t envy people drinking in his presence because he couldn’t imagine finding enjoyment from the small quantities they consumed. According to recent news, Hoffman had been partial to Heroin before his acting career took off and had been clean until recently. It is very sad that he surrendered to such deadly temptation when he had so much more to give.

People will wonder about his unfinished projects, including a role in the final Hunger Games movie, for which he was not finished. It will be nice to see him again in any form. If there are any movies I mentioned that you haven’t seen, give one a watch this week. Happiness is at your own risk, but the others are all examples of his great versatility and ability. It is a shame to all modern movies that he is no longer around.

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