Sony Pictures Classic
Only recently have I recognized the brilliance of movies, and it was quite recent that I decided that I wanted to be a filmmaker. One of the foundational inspirations for my love of film was Phillip Seymour Hoffman; Hoffman was one of American cinema's most intelligent and diverse performers. He spent more than twenty years (longer than my own life) building an impactful body of work that most artists could only dream of. Sadly, we will be seeing the last pieces of that beautiful career in the next two years.
The first time I saw Hoffman was in 2005's "Capote," in which he portrayed the brilliant author of the novel "In Cold Blood." I was ten when at the time; I had no idea what his or Capote's names meant, but I remember strongly holding on to the belief that Hoffman truly was Mr. Capote. To me, it was all too real. Not too long after that, I watched the movie "Doubt"; Hoffman portrays Father Brendan, a member of the priesthood who is suspected of having nefarious relations with a Catholic school student. My initial reaction to "Doubt" was one of dread -- I was sickened by the thought of such depravity. Hoffman made me weary of those in a position of authority and the movie still remains fresh in my mind.
Later, I would be introduced to the works of Paul Thomas Anderson, a director I would soon idolize for both his style and his writing. In "Magnolia" -- a filmed definition of the word "chaos" -- Hoffman played the nurse of Mr. Earl Partridge, and a caring one at that. Sheila O'Malley of Capital New York described Hoffman's performance better than I could:
And that leads to my personal favorite in the long list of great Hoffman performances: Lancaster Dodd, the leader of a Scientology-like cult in "The Master." It's rather recent, but I think it's one of the greatest performances by an actor.... well, ever, I guess. In the movie, we meet Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix) at his darkest hour; I've spoken to friends who say it's hard to pinpoint whether Dodd was helping Quell or hurting him. I believe he helped Freddie -- or at least tried. I can't speak for Hoffman, but I believe he portrayed Dodd in that spirit. You could sense that Hoffman poured his soul into this performance. It's not often that a movie speaks to you on such a personal level, that it can make you look at something and question it.
It's a mini-miracle, that performance, and it is a reminder that the best acting is often not the showiest, the loudest, the quirkiest, the darkest. The word "brave" is usually used to describe actors who make themselves ugly for roles, who disrobe, who portray the seedier sides of humanity. But showing an audience your heart? That's the bravest act of all.
Sheila O'Malley's description of Hoffman in "Magnolia" made me think about the one performance of his that I longed to see, but will never get the chance to witness: his work as Willy Loman in 2012's Broadway revival of "Death of a Salesman." Like every student, I've read the play -- and even without seeing it, his previous work tells me that he was perfect in it. Hoffman had this way of manipulating you into loving his characters, everything he did was proficient. No matter the quality of the film or the size of his roll, he would be the best part of whatever it was... or at least stealing every scene. ("This is our concern, Dude.")
I obviously never knew Hoffman, nor do I know his whole life story, but I do believe that he was an extraordinary human being. I've never been affected by a "celebrity death" before, but Hoffman's is the exception. Saying "was" instead of "is" after discussing his filmography will continue to feel odd for a long time, but his legacy will live on in spite of the loss. His work has inspired me and so many others, and for that I want to thank him.
Related: Philip Seymour Hoffman's Death -- A Hometown Perspective