“You have to make your reputation on being honest and unmerciful.” — Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lester Bangs in Almost Famous
David Thomson’s New Biographical Dictionary of Film opens its entry on Philip Seymour Hoffman with this question: “Where do we begin, and where will he end?”
Sadly, we now know where Phillip Seymour Hoffman ends, or at least we know where to place the period on his work as an actor.
It might be true to say that Hoffman, who died Feb. 2 of an apparent drug overdose, was “the greatest actor of his generation,” but it’s a designation that would likely make him cringe.
The best and most fearless artists rarely acknowledge their gifts, for insecurity is their greatest asset. It’s what keeps them on the edge of their abilities. It drives them to be better, to dig deeper.
Hoffman knew this, and used it to his advantage. It’s there for all to see in the characters he chose to inhabit — flawed, fragile and often funny human beings who yearned to connect in one way or another. Guys like Allen in Happiness, Freddie Miles in The Talented Mr. Ripley, Lester Bangs in Almost Famous, Wilson Joel in Love Liza, Jacob Elinsky in 25th Hour, Dan Mahoney in Owning Mahoney, Truman Capote in Capote, Jon Savage in The Savages, Andy in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead and Father Flynn in Doubt.
My first exposure to Hoffman was more than 20 years ago, in Scent of a Woman, wherein he played the asshole classmate to Chris O’Donnell’s muted wussy.
It was a small role, but one couldn’t help but be compelled by Hoffman’s presence, his floppy blond hair and large frame setting him apart as much as his character’s unusual manner, which was simultaneously caustic and vulnerable. It was seemingly all there from the beginning, especially those knowing eyes, which never failed to reveal so much more than the character intended.
An aspiring filmmaker by the name of Paul Thomas Anderson saw Scent of a Woman around the same time.
“I remember sitting in the theater and seeing that movie and just falling in love with Phil Hoffman,” Anderson says in the audio commentary track that accompanies the DVD release of the director’s debut, Hard Eight, which features Hoffman in a small but memorable role. “Like, ‘Fuck, whoever this guy is I gotta have him, I gotta see him, I gotta know him. I just gotta have this guy!’ It’s such an incredible performance. And so when I wrote this, I wrote it with Phil in mind.”
Determined to showcase Hoffman’s range and versatility, Anderson would write more characters with the actor in mind: Scotty J. in Boogie Nights, Phil Parma in Magnolia, Dean Trumbell in Punch-Drunk Love and, most memorably, Lancaster Dodd in The Master, an often misunderstood movie that deepens with each exposure.
But it’s Hoffman’s fearless, fully committed performance as Caden Cotard in Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York that rushes to mind in the wake of the actor’s death. It’s a metaphysical mind-fuck of a movie with Hoffman as an emotionally battered theater director determined to create a life-sized replica of New York City in a Manhattan warehouse as part of his long, ever-evolving dream project. It’s perhaps the most challenging role Hoffman ever inhabited, one that could only have sprung from the mind of Kaufman, an artist perpetually crippled by one existential crisis or another.
I interviewed Kaufman about Synecdoche, New York at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival. At one point I asked him about working with Hoffman, whose character had to go through myriad physical and psychological hoops in the film.
“What Phil and I did was a lot of talk about life and a lot of the issues in the movie: family and illness and aging and children and regret and sex,” Kaufman said. “Phil is an actor who is very real, and he has to understand what’s going on at any point. He’s not going to fake it, and it’s exhausting because he’s in nearly every scene.”
Moments after that answer fell from Kaufman’s lips, none other than Philip Seymour Hoffman stopped by our table to say hello to his director and close collaborator.
He then turned to me.
“Don’t listen to him — this movie works because of Charlie,” Hoffman said, flashing that wry smile and those knowing eyes, which again revealed more than he might have intended. “I was just along for the ride.”
That brief encounter will be my lasting memory of Hoffman, an uncommonly generous guy whose singular artistry will live on in his absence.
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