Remembering Philip Seymour Hoffman, the Man Who Could Play Anything
Philip Seymour Hoffman‘s greatest attribute was that he didn’t fit a type.
So many actors – too many actors – play one part and even when they play it well, it showcases a natural limit on their talents. But, Philip Seymour Hoffman? He was a chameleon. Ask him to be chubby and cherubic, and you’d get it. Ask him to be large and menacing, and you’d get it. Ask him to be a slob. Ask him to be slick. Ask him to be a supervillain. Ask him to be an average Joe. You could never pin down what kind of actor he was because he refused to take the easy road. He never did one thing. He never stopped challenging himself.
His legacy is not only one of excellence, but one of constant, exciting and fearless experimentation.
And now he’s gone.
I still remember the first time that I truly took note of Hoffman. The film was ‘Magnolia’ and the role was that of Phil Parma, the personal nurse to Jason Robard’s dying Earl Partridge. In a film filled with big, theatrical performances, Hoffman stood out not because he was as loud as Tom Cruise or as weepy as Julianne Moore. He stood out because he was the understated center of normalcy in a movie that went out of its way to twist reality. Amongst the movie stars, he was so quiet and real, and just so human.
That same year, he turned in a darker, far less likable performance in ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’ and you couldn’t find two more different roles if you tried.
And that’s why Hoffman thrived and that’s why it’s hard to talk about his career without simply saying “Man, he was great” over and over again. He’s elusive and hard to pin down, his varied choices never reflecting a personal style but rather the desire to try anything and everything. I like to imagine that he took on the comic relief best friend part in Ben Stiller’s middling ‘Along Came Polly’ just because he’d feel remiss if he didn’t at least try, at least once, to play a romantic comedy sidekick who talks about “sharting” his pants.
And a year before that, he was playing a sleazy preacher in ‘Cold Mountain.’ And a year before that, he was playing the terrifying/hilarious “Mattress Man” in ‘Punch-Drunk Love,’ a role that proved no one could yell expletives with such vigor. That same year brought us Hoffman performances in ‘The 25th Hour,’ ‘Owning Mahowny,’ ‘Love Liza’ and ‘Red Dragon.’ For many actors, that range represents an entire career. For Hoffman, that was just 2002.
I was hoping to decide on my favorite Philip Seymour Hoffman performance and use it to encapsulate why I think it sums up his career, but that’s proven impossible. How can you compare his astonishing work as a charismatic cult leader in ‘The Master’ with his effortless buffoonery in ‘Boogie Nights’? How could I possibly choose his hilariously deadpan performance in ‘The Big Lebowski’ over his intentionally mundane and chilling villain in ‘Mission: Impossible III.’ Heck, he’s one of the best things about ‘Moneyball’ and that’s a movie that is pretty much nothing but good things. And that’s before you even consider ‘Synecdoche, New York,’ an existential experiment that feels like it would have chewed up and spit out any actor that wasn’t Philip Seymour Hoffman. With him in the lead, an impenetrable film instantly becomes relatable.
And then there’s ‘Doubt.’ ‘Charlie Wilson’s War.’ ‘The Savages.’ ‘Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.’ ‘Doubt.’ He was even in ‘Twister’! Trying to pick a favorite isn’t just unfair to Hoffman’s legacy, it’s unfair to us. How are we supposed to do such a thing? It’s impossible. His filmography frequently reads like a list of the best films of the past 25 years (and, occasionally, some of the strangest).
The real tragedy of Hoffman’s death is that he left behind a partner and several young children. The other tragedy is that he died at least 30 years too early. He was 46 when he passed away and had accomplished more in 20 years than most actors do in their entire lives. We’ve been robbed of dozens of astonishing performances and we’ve been robbed of being able to see one of the greatest modern actors solidify himself as one of the all-time greats.
But, to be fair, he had already done that while alive. Rest in peace, Mr. Hoffman.