I still remember the first time I saw Philip Seymour Hoffman. It was in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, and I was 13 years old. Already, I’d been bitten by the film bug, and that bite had driven me to pursue films that my friends had no interest in seeing. As such, I wouldn’t come to see Magnolia until it had been released on VHS. I recall the captivating presence of the actor: this pudgy, baritone man. The heart he put into his role, and the fascinating sincerity with which he played a simple male nurse attending a dying man. I never forgot him.
While much has been made of Mr. Hoffman’s more lauded roles in the wake of his recent death, his turns as Truman Capote (Capote) or Lancaster Dodd (The Master), for example, it’s easy to forget that this is a man who has been working steadily over the last 2 decades, a performer with literally dozens of noteworthy roles under his belt, many of which are often overlooked when discussing his career.
For one thing, people often forget what a frightful antagonist the man could play, from a callous, uncaring gossip columnist in the Hannibal Lecter yarn, Red Dragon; to a smug, high society snob in The Talented Mr. Ripley; from a greedy, and calculating family man in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead; to his more notable role as the scene-stealing villain of Mission: Impossible 3. As an actor, Philip Seymour Hoffman knew no limits, in that he could even make the above list of reprehensible scoundrels, and a few more to boot, somewhat likable and understandable. Such was his talent, that even when you despised his characters, you couldn’t wait to see them impose upon the frame again.
Another talent Hoffman would show over the course of his career was the ability to play even the most pathetic creatures with a quiet dignity, almost as though his characters had a kind of forgotten self-respect which was slowly being rekindled by the events in their lives. This motif would sometimes carry almost unflinchingly throughout entire films, such as his titanic performance in Synecdoche, New York. Other times, it would erupt into terrible fountains of rage and indignation, as in The Ides of March. He could even traverse the comedic realm with the zest and glee of an old pro, with roles in films like The Big Lebowski, Flawless, and Punch-Drunk Love that could easily attest to his skill and timing for a more farcical performance.
Perhaps my favorite Hoffman performance was his turn as lonely, lovelorn high school teacher Jacob Elinsky in Spike Lee’s 25th Hour. As a supporter to Edward Norton’s prison-bound Monty, Jacob is as good-natured and steadfast a friend as anyone could hope for, eagerly trying to meet his best friend’s wishes for a happy final day of freedom. However, it is within his character’s subplot, falling hopelessly for an underage student, where he is really given the chance to shine. The scenes and dialogue in this plotline are split between the awkwardly humorous, the disastrously dramatic, and the perversely disturbing. In the hands of a lesser actor, Jacob could come across as either a sickening pervert or a sadsack loser, and it is a testament to his commitment to the craft that the viewer is still with him at the end of the film. Jacob is often wrong, and arguably deplorable, yet ultimately understandable
Philip Seymour Hoffman might well be remembered for all manner of roles in the years to come, I only hope the new generation of cinephiles will take the time and interest to seek out some of his lesser known, but equally praiseworthy performances, alongside his more celebrated works.
— Mike Worby
This article is part of our Philip Seymour Hoffman weekend spotlight. Click here to read the other articles.