There’s a unique double-take aspect to Philip Seymour Hoffman‘s magnetism that defined many of the diverse roles he inhabited. Hoffman was a chameleon, able to lend even the smallest part a distinct impression that he knew the character’s entire history. But Hoffman’s chameleonic skills were internal, not external; he “looked” relatively the same across much of his work.
More specifically, Hoffman looked like a man we could pass by on a crowded city street without ever noticing, and that’s partly why his roles could take us by surprise. As Hoffman carefully unfolded his characters, we began to realize he was rarely as “normal” as first impressions made it seem; his characters were often weighed down by some burdensome personal history, a phantom force that they continue to reckon with daily.
Hoffman’s charisma was subtle and patient, captivating an audience that eventually began to associate him with the best of late ‘90s and early 21st century American movies. Hoffman, in effect, became a signature of quality, a sign that legitimated a project as thoughtful, worthwhile filmmaking. By the time he won the award for Best Actor for 2005’s Capote, it was for fans of P.T. Anderson and Todd Solondz a belated recognition of a committed and unorthodox talent; for the rest of Hollywood and those who had not yet fallen under his spell, this was an introduction an unlikely leading man.
But it took a long time for Hoffman’s career to morph from a “that guy” scene-stealer to a man who has been lovingly dubbed in the past 24 hours as “The Master.” And when he took home that gold in early 2006, it meant that – more so than for any Best Actor-winner in recent memory – he could no longer surprise us from the margins where his roles had thrived for so long.
In terms of appearance-based first impressions, Philip Seymour Hoffman is a textbook example of an unassuming presence, possessing the type of unremarkable features typically unbefitting a leading man. Hoffman wore the face and physique of somebody whose life existed much closer to the daily rigor of reality than the surreal plastic utopia of Hollywood filmmaking, with a visage that could blend as easily into a New York City subway or the stands of a small town ballgame. Always and openly conscious of his appearance, Hoffman used it to his advantage as his career gradually and patiently grew momentum throughout the 1990s, whether in his first onscreen gig in Law & Order or as a prep school bully in Scent of a Woman.
My first memory of Hoffman was in Twister, a mid-90s blockbuster whose staying power didn’t reside far beyond 1996. Yet in his turn as post-grunge storm-chaser Dusty, Hoffman provided a manic, esoteric energy supported by Clapton guitar solos and accentuated with a sartorial mess of a hoodie. His brief time onscreen not only shined beyond an ensemble, but proved even more memorable than the CGI-enabled forces of nature that starred. From the time he started regularly acquiring supporting roles, Hoffman proved he could even upstage a tornado.
As Jack Hamilton of Slate explains, it was Hoffman’s second collaboration with Paul Thomas Anderson – as Boogie Nights’ sexually frustrated soundman Scotty – that made him a star. Or rather, it was specifically the “I’m a fucking idiot” moment, when Anderson’s camera decisively lingers where others would have followed along with the handsome lead, forcing us to endure, in a single prolonged take, the outpouring of a mountain of insecurities compounded into Dirk’s rejection of Scotty’s advances.
I highly recommend Hamilton’s insightful and detailed exploration of this moment, and this was no doubt a watershed role for Hoffman. But Scotty didn’t make Hoffman a “star” as much as it did a consummate character actor: that familiar and easily identifiable perk that films released between 1998 and 2005 would get whenever Hoffman’s nuanced command of a scene came into play.
The latently anal yet endlessly patient yes-man Brandt of The Big Lebowski. The slyly condescending expat socialite Freddie Miles in The Talented Mr. Ripley. The erudite and uncool Lester Bangs of Almost Famous. Jacob the schoolteacher who tries to support his friend but endures a moral crisis all his own in the shadows of 25th Hour. Hoffman’s output during the late 1990s and early 2000s is simply extraordinary: an encyclopedia of supporting roles in some of the most noteworthy films of the past sixteen years. And yet this even fails to mention the lesser films he made that he damn near hijacked for the brief moments he was allowed onscreen – he is, let us never forget, the reason “shart” is now in our lexicon.
This period was brimming with often odd, always engaged turns in risky, experimental roles typically depicting unlikeable people. Even as Dean Trumbell in Punch Drunk Love, the closest Hoffman came to playing a villain before Mission: Impossible III, he clearly channeled some real empathy in order to realize such a festering asshole. The moment when Trumbell finally backs down not only reveals the cowardice behind his trumpeting, but also exhibits (for one brief moment) his humanity. While Hoffman was undeniably recognized by fans and critics and certainly filmmakers as a great character actor, the roles themselves, while rich in depth, were of the thankless variety. Hoffman’s obvious talent was more often subculturally acknowledged than publicly recognized, only available to those who tracked his filmography by name and by heart.
This is why Hoffman’s Oscar win for Capote was both a deserved recognition of a rare talent while also a crux in the unparalleled trajectory he had built up to that point in his career. While Hoffman had notable leading roles in rarely seen indies like Love Liza and Owning Mahowny, Capote was his first lead of any significant profile. Hoffman had made his name using the power of the unassuming, and revealing characters through incremental patience and reserved, internalized performances. To give the guy from Happiness and Magnolia belated recognition for portraying one of the most famous people in the 20th century seemed conventional in such a way that threatened to misrecognize Hoffman’s talent, despite how unsurprisingly great Hoffman was in it.
As a result, consciously or not, Hoffman’s career changed drastically, and he found himself playing more headlining roles. Which meant, of course, that we only saw more of Hoffman, and that his captivating power could aim bigger and reach further. Movies since 2005 have only been richer with Hoffman’s more foregrounded presence. But Capote also meant that the performer could no longer pass unnoticed on the margins. It meant the loss of a rare and modest power that structured a career of truly supporting roles. Hoffman was perhaps never a movie star in any conventional sense of the term, but he did become a conspicuous presence; he could continue to command any scene, but he couldn’t disappear in it the way he had before.
Hoffman’s final collaboration with Paul Thomas Anderson perhaps best evinces this shift. So does the movie he didn’t make with Anderson.
There Will Be Blood is, to date, the only PTA film Hoffman never appeared in. Anderson’s period epic was (in contrast to the filmmaker’s Altman-esque mosaics prior) a character study that framed a one-man show for Daniel Day-Lewis’s mesmerizing bravura. For Hoffman to have a role, even one as unassuming as his charming turn in Magnolia, would distract from Blood’s central performance. Hoffman returned to work with Anderson as the eponymous role in The Master, and his Lancaster Dodd is as commanding and boisterous a character as Hoffman has ever embodied. How do you perform as a man who is always performing, and has convinced even himself of this own charismatic performance?
It’s not that Hoffman’s talents changed, or that he never attempted supporting turns again, but his visibility (and our expectations of him therein) shifted dramatically in his all-too-brief but ever-rewarding career. His relative inconspicuousness was central to his initial mystique — therein lay the Trojan horse of his performances. But once his credibility and talent became more publicly known and recognized, Hoffman adapted to a range of bigger roles, whether plotting to rob his own father in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead or struggling to balance family and art in A Late Quartet or staging his entire life while living it in Synecdoche, New York.
That several of his co-leads – Gust Avrakotos in Charlie Wilson’s War, Father Brendan Flynn in Doubt, Lancaster Dodd – were recognized by the Academy as “supporting performances” not only attests to the near erasure of truly supporting performance in AMPAS politics, but bespeaks the rare place that Hoffman’s dedicated career had arrived: as a renowned character actor fully expected to carry a film. Naturally, he was always more than capable of doing just that.