Todd McCarthy on Philip Seymour Hoffman: 'Never a False or Self-Conscious Note'
THR's chief film critic remembers "a complete performer," who nailed it as both the fey and pixie-ish author in "Capote" and the blustery and Wellesian title character in "The Master."
Philip Seymour Hoffman was a consummate character actor whose talent was so genuine and deep that nothing could prevent him from becoming a complete performer, which sometimes included being a leading man and star as well.
Hollywood used to save a little room at the top for guys like him, actors not typically good-looking, sometimes a bit paunchy, with faces a bit mashed or irregular but marked by personality and character. If you look through the list of best actor Oscar winners from the 1930s and 1940s, the names of such men pop up with some regularity: Wallace Beery, Paul Muni, Charles Laughton, Victor McLaglen, Walter Huston, Broderick Crawford, and then again in the 1960s and 1970s with Lee Marvin, Walter Matthau, George C. Scott, Gene Hackman.
But for the past 25 years or so, handsome younger stars have ruled almost absolutely; to be tall, toned and well-accoutered has been a virtual requirement. But when, like Philip Seymour Hoffman, you are virtually incapable of putting a foot wrong – when, no matter whom you're sharing the screen with, you shine or burn or command attention as strongly as anyone else – you cannot be denied, and so it was with Hoffman. The one other film actor whose name immediately comes to mind whose words always seemed true no matter what, who so fully inhabited his characters' skin that there could never be a false or self-conscious note, was Spencer Tracy.
But in the 50-odd films he acted in during half as many years, Hoffman played a startlingly wide range of characters. Thick-set and sandy-haired, he caught the eyes of talented younger directors (Martin Brest, Paul Thomas Anderson, the Coen brothers, Todd Solondz, Anthony Minghella, Cameron Crowe, Spike Lee) and made an early impression onscreen playing weirdos and creeps, including the gay porn film crewmember who makes a fool of himself by kissing Mark Wahlberg's Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights, the fastidious, uncomfortably laughing factotum in The Big Lebowski and the masturbating guy on one end of the phone in Happiness. He was excellent as the empathetic male nurse in Magnolia, his third film for Anderson, but the early performance that most surprised me for the range it indicated was as the Princeton snooty boy in The Talented Mr. Ripley; despite having played a preppy before (in Scent of a Woman), Hoffman showed nuance and a certain attractiveness that were new.
At first, the idea of Hoffman playing Truman Capote seemed rather a stretch; the actor was 5-foot-9 whereas the famous man he was playing had been a pixie-ish 5-foot-3; Hoffman's natural voice was a gravelly baritone, whereas the author spoke in a high-pitched drawling whine. But, like the other inspired few in the acting profession who can seemingly will themselves into other shapes and sizes for a performance, Hoffman “became” Capote for the occasion to show the will and wiliness behind the disarmingly fey social mannerisms. It was a risky high dive, to be sure, but Hoffman nailed it as he did everything else in a career that, post-Oscar, could have made a turn into exclusively big Hollywood productions. Instead, he continued to mix things up in a very interesting way that included fine indie-flavored films (The Savages, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, the exceptional lead in Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York), the occasional prestige title (excellent as the ranting, pissed-off spy in Charlie Wilson's War and as the suspect priest in Doubt) and his one idiosyncratic, not-bad outing as a director, Jack Goes Boating.
He also did heavy lifting onstage in acclaimed productions of two of the great American plays, Long Day's Journey Into Night and Death of a Salesman, in the latter as Willy Loman, a role he had first played as a senior in high school.
Hoffman was brilliant as the commanding, prolix cult leader in The Master. Anderson chose to focus primarily upon Joaquin Phoenix's disturbed wanderer who zigzagged in and out of the charismatic charlatan's orbit, but had he decided instead to make the film first and foremost about the big man, Hoffman would no doubt have created a character as imposing and definitive as Daniel Day-Lewis did in Anderson’s previous film, There Will Be Blood. Hoffman’s the Master is a creation of Wellesian size, bluster and bluff, curtailed only by the running time devoted to him.
Hoffman was at Sundance two weeks ago to accompany two new films, A Most Wanted Man and God's Pocket. In the former, an adaptation of a John le Carre novel about contemporary espionage in Germany, Hoffman plays an old-school German spy who would have looked more comfortable in the dingy shadows of the East/West chess game than he does in the sleek headquarters of modern Germany; he is grizzled, smokes like a chimney, drinks like a fish and packs a paunch along with a world-weariness that bespeaks a man in his 60s, which is what Hoffman looks like in the film. He also spends quite a bit of time in bars in God's Pocket, an ensemble piece about Philly neighborhood goombahs and their women in which the actor reminds us at moments of his comic gifts.
Along with those, the public can still look forward to seeing Hoffman twice more in the upcoming Hunger Games installments, a franchise to which he added a good deal of intrigue and pleasure the last time around.
To be honest, Hoffman didn't look good at Sundance; I saw him a couple of times and his demeanor was pasty, drained, a bit distracted. But I charitably attributed this to what his part had required in A Most Wanted Man, that he had given that role what it asked for — and how – and that he would recover and readjust for his next part. Plus, he was only 46. When I first heard the awful news on Sunday, I almost immediately thought of Heath Ledger; the shock, the sense of deprivation, the leaving of young children behind, the death in a downtown New York dwelling not far away, the roles not played, were very similar.
Hoffman went all the way with the talents he had, further and more often than many. But his vital time as an artist should have lasted at least twice as long.