A good actor can define a place and a time.
A great actor can define a generation.
Philip Seymour Hoffman defined the craft itself.
Hoffman the man is somebody I never met. He kept a private life outside of the movies. I’ve heard that he was a decent man from those who worked with him, and I know he was in high demand for his attention and respect of his medium of choice.
I’ve heard that he suffered from substance abuse, but I don’t know if that’s why he died. I don’t know the man. But his work means so much to me that I have to write something.
For a little over twenty years, Philip Seymour Hoffman consistently elevated the material he was given to staggering heights. He made a character in the laughable Jan De Bont tornado thriller Twister a comic fool worthy of a career-peaking John Landis.
And those are just his roles in bad movies.
Philip Seymour Hoffman was a genius of his craft. The winner of one Oscar (for Capote) deserved many more. He took risks in both directions. He starred as a serial sex-offender in the blacker-than-black comedy Happiness from Todd Solondz and as a Games Executive in this year’s Hunger Games: Catching Fire. Both roles are risks for an actor of his caliber, and both roles were taken just as seriously.
Hoffman could play loud or quiet. He could be the yelling, cursing Mattress Man of Punch-Drunk Love or the loving, humble Nurse Phil in Magnolia. He could explode with furious anger (Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead) or convince you that your own nerdy bubble could actually be cool (Almost Famous).
He was a genius because his characters always felt lived in. They always felt real. Behind those blue eyes, a genuine emotionality shined through.
Other great actors, like Daniel Day-Lewis, go through the grueling effort of becoming a character physically. They hide behind makeup and prosthetics and develop voices and tics.
Hoffman rarely did so. He instead became characters in a more subtle way. He changed his walk. He controlled the volume of his voice. He knew where to put his hands, where to stand, when to take a breath.
He was a genius not because he could disappear into a role, but because he could convince us that he was that character all along.
In The Savages, he gives a speech about how death is ugly and cruel. It is.
Hoffman spent a lot of time on screen with the subject of death. As the hospice nurse, Phil, in Magnolia. As a son taking care of his dying father in The Savages. As the genius, death-obsessed playwright in Synecdoche, New York. As the new age religious guru in The Master. Hoffman hovered around the subject for years.
And now he’s gone.
Synecdoche, New York, probably my favorite movie, also contains my favorite Hoffman performance. He plays both male and female. He plays both young and old. He acts through prosthetics, through the lens of comedy and tragedy, through the years, through surreal dream logic. He makes a complicated, dense narrative flow effortlessly with his calm and nuanced performance. It’s a triumph because he’s always in control.
Perhaps outside of acting, Hoffman was out of control. A genius often is. But I don’t know. I never knew him. I never knew him really.
But I do know his work.
It has elevated and changed me. And no other actor in the world will ever do it the way he did.