On Sunday, February 8th, 2014, Philip Seymour Hoffman died at the untimely age of 46 in his New York City apartment. It was a piece of news that carried a variance in reaction and response, due to circumstance and of course timing. There can be no doubting that the primary emotion was shock; Hoffman joined the likes of Heath Ledger, River Phoenix, and James Dean as part of a club of actors who passed on before their time and left behind a towering legacy as well as a pall of resonant sadness. An actor leaving us is the most strange of phenomenon. As participants of travails into escapism, they form an emotional and cathartic bond with us, touching ours souls, making their demise far more powerful, far more sorely felt, than anyone else save friends or family. Through their on-screen journeys and the connections they make with film fans, they truly become friends or family. There is some solace in that, leaving behind a rich and diverse body of work, available to be re-watched forever, they do take on a certain unique immortality.
Hoffman, a most unlikely giant of Hollywood, is a prime example of this since unlike the aforementioned late colleagues, he was not shot to fame through mercurial child stardom or hunky screen presence, but through the grit and determination your ordinary actor must undertake. Watching his rise from supporting character actor to bone-a-fide leading man was, and still is, a fascinating and enriching experience, helped by the fact that whether it be Capote or Twister, Hoffman was simply incapable of putting in a bad performance. Viewing his journey today, a week since he left us, is an odyssey we share with the actor and the best way to keep him alive in a very special way. And for the sharpest and most heartening perspective on that rise, one merely has to look at his collaboration with touchstone director Paul Thomas Anderson, a run of four films that enabled and defined the success of both men.
A highly regarded young stage actor as well as a veritable veteran of small parts on screen, with works as diverse as the Oscar-winning Scent of a Woman and schlocky Money For Nothing, Hoffman was first picked up by PTA for his epic follow-up to his own highly regarded debut piece Hard Eight. As a notably sad and troubled figure in a myriad cast of tragic characters, Hoffman’s role as Scotty in Boogie Nights is fascinating since not only does it showcase his talent for playing ‘woobie’ bit-parters, but also in that it effectively summed up what he was best known for at that time. Always sympathetic, often sad, his characters were not go-getting heroes of their own tales or simple comic relief, but rather troublingly real people who deserved better, whether they be slackers of pencil necks.
On paper, his role stands no chance in the pathos stakes when compared to the fate of William H. Macy’s Little Bill, but on screen it is equally resonant. The scene in which Scotty gives in to his powerful love for Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler and loses his composure, not to mention his dignity, is both horribly uncomfortable and horribly sad – a small, deeply personal, and hugely recognizable beat within a tapestry of extreme, earth shattering and melancholy. These interludes would become a staple of Anderson’s sensibilities, born out of a genuine understanding of the human condition, and this one put Hoffman on the map as he nailed that scene and the character in general. It led to a general improvement in his parts, including working for the Coen brothers on The Big Lebowski and getting what was ostensibly his first ensemble co-lead role in the Todd Solondz’s perfectly dark niche Happiness. Now he was getting deeper, more written characters in bigger, better films and not simply having to rely on his own empathetic streak to bring life to the role.
When PTA put together his follow-up to Boogie Nights with the ambitiously vast Magnolia, he brought with him half the cast of the surprise hit that had made his name, with Hoffman to the forefront. In a film packed to the rafters with living, breathing and intimately exposed protagonists, Hoffman’s Phil Parma is one of the most interesting to examine both in writing and through the maturity and finesse of the actor’s portrayal. He comes with no real back-story beyond subtle suggestion and personal conjecture, a blank canvas left open for the viewer to fill with their own interpretation. As the nurse tending to the needs of the cantankerous but sorrowful Earl Partridge (another late great, Jason Robards), he is perhaps the film’s most likable and respectable presence.
Striking a rapport with his charge and stretching himself to his creative limits to fulfill the patient’s dying wish, he shows the same kind spirit of Boogie’s Scotty but adds to it a self-assurance and determination that makes him both hero and underdog. While others are driven by personal traumas and loneliness, Phil stays on and witnesses Earl’s death and the infamous shower of frogs that brings the story full circle by dint of compassion and care. While Julianne Moore’s Linda is defined by guilt, and Tom Cruise’s Jack/Frank by hatred, Hoffman’s Phil has no personal stake but stays through choice. It is impossible to feel anything but love for him as he openly weeps for a man he has no reason to mourn. Whether there is an unspoken link in his unseen past that makes a father-son reunion so powerful is a matter for fruitless debate. Less fruitless, and not even a debate, is that Hoffman’s approach to the character is completely authentic and a revelation of his abilities to play more than just a perceived loser.
Thus, his characters began to change, drawing not only on his newly discovered charisma but an easily accessed flamboyance and extroverted energy. The Talented Mr. Ripley was another eye-catcher for his CV, but Almost Famous gained him a cult following. So much had changed for him through the versatility of his choices that by the time Anderson came calling once more, he was on a whole other level as an actor. The double bill of Boogie Nights and Magnolia had also made Paul Thomas Anderson a big player in Hollywood, with the capability to take his own paths, and Punch-Drunk Love is an interesting cross-section.
Streamlined and short, with a vaguely structured narrative and emphasis on one man’s story, it represented new ground for both men. While Adam Sandler deservedly took the plaudits for his astonishingly understated and sensitive performance in a role tailor made for him (Anderson described the film as an examination of the genuine emotional toil one of Sandler’s characters would endure), Hoffman is left with just three scenes in a brief but important role. While he mainly exists to contribute to Sandler’s coming of age, Hoffman is handed a part that both built on the success of Lester Bangs and opened up yet another new category for him: the villain.
As stated, his role is small, but it is far from forgettable, particularly in the furious energy and Andersonian quirkiness of dialogue shown during his fantastic ‘Shut up’ phone tirade. Less recognized but more notable is his final showdown with Sandler’s Barry, which plays out like a Western stand-off. There isn’t a hint of either Scotty or Phil in the way Dean ‘Mattress Man’ Trumbell faces down Barry, and his surrender is pragmatic rather than flawed. Hoffman is so surely self-convinced and overly confident that such shows of humility simply aren’t in the pipeline. All of this is displayed through minimalist physical acting and body language. In fact, the character generates all of its interest through the actor playing him, sufficiently so that he seems like the big bad of another film who just happened to stumble into this one. Most notable is that he almost seems like a different actor from the sensitive soul who inhabited Boogie and Magnolia, just as Anderson proved that he had more in his locker than sweeping sum of their parts ensembles.
The three collaborations proved the perfect window into both Hoffman’s range and his intense authenticity, and also work in retrospect as an apt distillation of his roles in the films surrounding them. They also, undoubtedly, elevated him from ‘that guy’ to name recognition. From 2005, he embarked on a golden run of consecutive pictures that brought him, respectively, Oscar success (Capote), blockbuster attention (Mission: Impossible 3), critical acclaim as a lead (The Savages, Synecdoche, New York and Before The Devil Knows Your Dead, the latter uneasy viewing in relation to how fate panned out), clamor for his skills as rich and interesting support (Charlie Wilson’s War) and confirmation of his mastery of hard-hitting drama (Doubt). This 3-year run also brought two more Oscar nominations and brought him out of the cult indie circles and into the mainstream limelight, with enough creative integrity to retain his reputation as an actor rather than a star.
During this time, PTA ended his 5-year hiatus to put to screen There Will Be Blood – a sensational historical drama sans his usual brand of surreal and his touchstone cast (including Hoffman) – and confirm his status as one of the world’s leading filmmakers just as Hoffman was confirming himself as one of the world’s leading actors. It was a beautiful example of synchronicity that seldom occurs outside of film. It also meant that part four of their working relationship was inevitable, and it couldn’t have been better chosen, with an apt title to boot. 2012’s The Master was the epic conclusion to a saga that featured intense character development, progression and twists in a manner that was, frankly, a thing of fiction made real by fate getting the right idea.
In this light, The Master is even more fascinating than it already is; a rich and sumptuous drama both leisurely and pricelessly angst-ridden, it is the ultimate Anderson movie and the ultimate Hoffman performance. With the added undertones of being a commentary on the partnership of director and star, it is pure genius. Here, Hoffman is Lancaster Dodd, renaissance man and cult leader who is the ultimate embodiment of self-made success. Every word spoken and each nuance tells a story of his journey, the odyssey that led to him dominating every room and becoming the meaning of many a life.
Although he is a fresh character, again one tantalizingly real, there are small pieces of Hoffman’s previous PTA roles to be found; the now-masked insecurity of Scotty; the empathy and drive of Phil Parma; the ferocious and occasionally tyrannical stubbornness of Mattress Man. But add to all of this a hard-earned pride and arrogance – as shown with his voracious championing of The Cause – and also the ease with which he is able to define others through his charismatic spirit – typified by his man-and-dog relationship with Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell. It is an extraordinarily intelligent projection of a wonderfully written character and one that Hoffman, through his rise to the pinnacle of his art, is perfectly placed to pull off. It, along with the film as a whole, is the masterpiece of PTA+PSH. Both, jointly, have become the master.
Just as Paul Thomas Anderson has lost someone truly special, so have we. There can be no denying that for all the bumps and dips on the road, Philip Seymour Hoffman clawed his way on to the screen and into our hearts with a talent seldom few possess, and enriched lives as a result. His passing is a tragedy, and brings with it a regret at what we may now never see. But there is always light. Like those other late great actors, he leaves behind a legacy on screen, and his is truly unique; a fully formed hero’s journey torn from the pages of fiction but oh so real. For those dismayed by his passing, saddened by his loss, there is one simple manner to alleviate the grief: watch his work, enjoy his art and take him into your heart. Through PTA & PSH and the journey they sewed into memory, a bright star will truly burn forever.
Rest in peace, Phil.
— Scott Patterson
This article is part of our Philip Seymour Hoffman weekend spotlight. Click here to read the other articles.