Three Years Gone: Remembering Philip Seymour Hoffman
It's hard to believe it's been three years since cinema suffered the devastating loss of Philip Seymour Hoffman. A powerhouse performer in every sense of the word, he was the finest actor of his generation, and in the blink of an eye his flame was extinguished. Personally, I took the loss especially hard, and have since not been able to revisit his films without a sense of dread or trepidation.
This piece was first published the day after his passing in 2014. It's my own story of remembering the man and I hope you can find some solace in it.
Yesterday at around 11am, my boyfriend and I had checked out of our hotel room and were starting the two hour drive back home. Our conversation turned to movies as usual and I randomly brought up the 2006 Oscar ceremony and the ridiculousness that was Crash winning Best Picture. After a quick search I found that it was up against Brokeback Mountain, Capote, Good Night and Good Luck and Munich to which my boyfriend replied, "Wow, all those are better than Crash." This then led to me talking about the genius of Philip Seymour Hoffman's performance in Capote as I'll take any opportunity to talk about how much I admire his work. Fast-forward a few hours and we're sitting down for lunch when I receive a single text from my best friend that read "Matt. Check the news." I did just that and immediately lost my appetite while having to fight off an emotional breakdown in the middle of a restaurant.
I'm not going to mince words, Philip Seymour Hoffman is my favorite actor of all time and his performances have left an indeliable impression on me. I've never seen a man on screen in my lifetime that truly gave himself to every role, no matter how small, and made it the most memorable part of any film he was in. I first noticed PSH, like many film buffs of my generation in the Paul Thomas Anderson film Boogie Nights as Scotty J, a gay boom mike operator who devastates himself and the audience by professing his attraction to porn star Dirk Diggler. The aftermath where Scotty is continually cursing himself as "a fucking idiot," has stuck with me for years.
I next saw him in PT Anderson's Magnolia, which is still one of my all-time favorite films. PSH plays Phil Parma, a hospice nurse in the service of dying media magnate Earl Partridge, played by Jason Robards, in one of his last screen roles. Hoffman brought a frankness and honesty to his role that was, like most of performances, very true to life and believable. When Parma is desperately trying to get in touch with Earl's estranged son Frank (Tom Cruise) and constantly being put on hold, the tension is ratcheted up several notches through PSH's performance alone.
Hoffman has always had strong bit parts in films, ranging from Twister ("Fooooood!") to his role as faithful assistant Brandt ("Her life is in your hands, Dude.") in The Big Lebowski. These roles, while they could have been played by anyone, are made more memorable by the simple fact that Philip Seymour Hoffman embodied these characters so well, no matter how little screen time he was afforded. From a terrifying villain in the third Mission Impossible movie to a shady mattress salesman in Punch Drunk Love to an embattled priest in Doubt, PSH always gave performances that were to me at least, a punch in the gut, but a most satisfying and welcome punch.
In 2006, Hoffman won the Oscar for Best Actor for his transformative portrayal of the titular character in Bennett Miller's masterful Capote. The rare biopic that works as a cohesive film and requires no prior knowledge of its subject, Capote features one of the best performances of the last decade. This film is cold in the best sense of the word and PSH so owns the role that you almost forget it's him after a while. He truly became Truman Capote and basically carries the entire film on his shoulders, the film would have been a totally different beast with another actor in the lead. No one portrayed an outsider with more skill than PSH, his reaction to the local Kansans' stares get under your skin and remind me of the stares that anyone who's different can get from strangers.
As good as he was in Capote he truly elevated his game in Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master. Playing a loose approximation of Scientology founder L Ron Hubbard in the form of Lancaster Dodd, PSH didn't so much steal every scene he was in, but commanded your attention. It's fitting that he starred in The Master because that's exactly what he was, a master of his craft. Dodd may very well have been his best performance in a career filled with "best performances," his subtle inflections and the pure conviction he brought to the role are nothing short of astounding. Lancaster Dodd was a character that was clearly fraught with many inner demons, and much like the actor himself, turned to substance abuse to try and fight them. Rewatching the film last night, the parallels between Lancaster Dodd the character and Philip Seymour Hoffman the man, in that aspect at least, became more apparent than ever.
It goes without saying that Hoffman left us far too young at the age of 46 and it's a shame we won't get to see him play the older roles he was meant for. It's pointless to bring up the circumstances of his death since they're so well known at this point but I will say this; addiction is a terrible thing and Philip Seymour Hoffman was not an "idiot" or "stupid" as many ignorant people have said. He was simply a man with a disease, a terrible disease that for one reason or another he couldn't cope with, and that's the real tragedy. I as well as many other cinephiles will miss him dearly. He was a unique talent in the medium and to think that he can be replaced is pure folly. Cinema as a whole has lost one of its most talented performers and films going forward will be lesser because of it.