Looking Back: A Fond Tribute & Farewell to Philip Seymour Hoffman
by Ethan Anderton
February 3, 2014
"The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you're uncool." By now, this quote that Philip Seymour Hoffman utters as rock critic Lester Bangs in the Cameron Crowe film Almost Famous has made countless rounds on the web in the wake of the tragic news of the Oscar-winning actor's death. It's Hoffman's portrayal of a character who isn't too far removed from the strange little career this writer has found (don't presume a comparison of influence or greatness on any level) that has resonated with me for years as I've soaked up every piece of cinema in my vicinity. And it's his absence from film that now gives me a heavy heart. So this is my tribute to Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Hoffman's portrayal of Bangs has informed my work as a writer of movie news, reviews and editorials (I wouldn't consider myself a film critic), mostly from his call to a young William Miller to be "honest and unmerciful." I do my best to uphold those simple values in writing, but again, do not hold myself to the same quality or influence as the great Lester Bangs. However, as an actor, Hoffman seems to have heeded Bangs' advice in that every single performance, no matter how small, conventional or significant, was raw, pure, and contained some piece of the man himself. And that's what made him great.
This will not be a countdown of Hoffman's greatest roles or even a list of his most memorable. This is merely my personal experience and love of many of Hoffman's roles, and how they have touched, affected, and influenced my perception of film. There will be some films I have excluded, some I have yet to experience (and will cherish as new experiences knowing that Hoffman's career was cut short all too soon), but all the films I've chosen to highlight most importantly feature an unforgettable performance from the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, even if the films themselves weren't masterpieces. So without further adieu, here we go:
This was my first experience with Mr. Hoffman. In grade school, Twister made tornadoes all the rage, so much that it inspired some of us to be storm chasers (a dream that thankfully never panned out). And there was something about this wild, strange storm chaser named Dusty that drew me in, even at a young age. Perhaps it was because he felt like a cool teenage brother you could hang out with and do things that you would keep from your parents. No matter what the draw, it was because of Hoffman's charisma and instant likability that this character stood out and led my interest in...
Now, at 11 years old, this was not a film that I should have seen. But it was my recognition of Philip Seymour Hoffman that drew me to the film that helped ring in my years of puberty (thanks Heather Graham and Julianne Moore), even if I wasn't fully understanding the subtext and significance of the film's themes. But it was Hoffman's endearing, lovable but unconfident Scotty J. that brought me into a film that has since become one of my absolute favorite films of the 90s. The awkwardness, the desire to belong, it's all here, and for any adolescent, those feelings are universal.
This is undoubtedly one of Hoffman's lesser celebrated films, but as with any project that was lucky enough to wrangle in his talents, the schmaltzy film is elevated because of him. In many ways, you might find yourself siding with Hoffman's character simply because the happy-go-lucky medical methods of Robin Williams as Patch Adams are a little too idealistic, but that wouldn't be the case of Hoffman didn't play the character with just the right amount of genuine, jerky arrogance to make sure he was more than a two-dimensional snob.
The Big Lebowski
If there are two roles of Hoffman's that are close in similarity, at least in my eyes, they are the above role from Patch Adams, and this turn in the Coen Brothers cult classic. The characters aren't even all that similar with Brandt being a more energetic, less invasive prick than Mitch in Patch Adams, but these two characters always seemed like brothers to me. Hoffman's ass-kissing attitude in this film is so funny, but so damn peculiar. Hoffman brings to life a character than in the real world seems out of place, but is right at home in the world of Joel and Ethan Coen's story
This might be the most tear-jerking work that Hoffman has done to date, but it's punctuated so magnificently with little choices that make it more than just a piece of drama. Hoffman's performance is naturally funny, but not in a straight-up comedy sort of style. It's all padding for the emotional blows that Hoffman deals as this hospice caretaker witnesses a heartbreaking reunion later in the film.
I've already said a decent amount about how Hoffman's turn as Lester Bangs has impacted my life and career, so I'll let Cameron Crowe explain how Hoffman's work in the above scene in particular defined the man and his approach to every single character he played:
"My original take on this scene was a loud, late night pronouncement from Lester Bangs. A call to arms. In Phil’s hands it became something different. A scene about quiet truths shared between two guys, both at the crossroads, both hurting, and both up too late. It became the soul of the movie. In between takes, Hoffman spoke to no one. He listened only to his headset, only to the words of Lester himself. (His Walkman was filled with rare Lester interviews.) When the scene was over, I realized that Hoffman had pulled off a magic trick. He’d leapt over the words and the script, and gone hunting for the soul and compassion of the private Lester, the one only a few of us had ever met. Suddenly the portrait was complete. The crew and I will always be grateful for that front row seat to his genius."
A short scene with a big punch is all it takes for Hoffman to become one of the most memorable parts of an already fantastic film. If you haven't seen the amazing faux commercial where Hoffman takes an impressive tumble but seemingly without injury, you can see that here. But the scene above is a display of the intensity that Hoffman holds within him when he gets really worked up. It's easy to oversell anger as an actor, but it has to come from somewhere real in order to be believable. Hoffman's performance lends weight to this small role, and his weathered demeanor gives us a history that displays a defeated man who does what he needs to get by, even if that's being a shady businessman.
Along Came Polly
Here's another completely unremarkable film made better by the presence of Philip Seymour Hoffman. A role that would have otherwise been a throwaway best friend in the hands of any other actor, Hoffman's physical comedy chops are on full display here. The energy put into this supporting role brings Stiller's performance as a timid, hopeless romantic to a different level. Like any good supporting actor, it adds layers to the performances surrounding him. That, and it's absolutely hilarious.
There's not much more you can say about Hoffman's turn as author Truman Capote when he's already won the Academy Award for Best Actor. But his performance is astounding on a number of levels. Hoffman conveys so much emotion by way of a voice and personality that has been caricatured countless times, and that in itself is impressive. And while Hoffman is limited by portraying the Capote that many came to know on the surface, it's what lies behind the glasses and under the neat appearance that the actor brings to life with perfection and subtlety.
Mission: Impossible III
A rare blockbuster appearance for the actor makes for the best villain the Mission: Impossible franchise has ever seen, and he's actually better than a lot of other mainstream villains as well. This particular performance is one of my absolute favorites if only because I recall being riveted by the Super Bowl ad for the film that used Hoffman's haunting taunts at Tom Cruise as the opening. And when those sequences were expanded in the trailer, I can't even tell you how many times I rewatched them. It's one thing to play a bad guy, it's another to be the bad guy torturing Tom Cruise and setting the bar that high from the beginning.
Charlie Wilson's War
The above scene is exactly the kind of scene you hope for when Philip Seymour Hoffman takes a role in a film. Hoffman playing a grizzled but respected shlub of sorts makes for a great character, and while he's played similar characters, the performance never feels recycled. This one in particular is bittersweet knowing that he's sharing the screen with John Slattery, who would go on to direct Hoffman in one of his final performances in God's Pocket. This is easily one of Hoffman's best performances, and no one could have done it better.
If Lester Bangs got lost at sea and went a little more loopy, he would be The Count. But even taking on a character that has the same passion for music, Hoffman didn't just phone in this underrated performance. He has fun, but there's a special kind of presence that keeps this character from becoming a caricature. This is also one of Hoffman's best examples of sharing the screen with an ensemble that both relies on and is made better by his supporting work. It makes you just want to sit and listen to records with him for weeks.
The Invention of Lying
This is a cameo, but one of the finest examples of how Hoffman even made the smallest roles his own. Sitting in the presence of Ricky Gervais as he figures out the art of lying in a society where everyone tells the truth, his naive nature to believe anything Gervais says is just so earnest and genuine. He almost plays the character like a child, and it's very entertaining.
The Ides of March
An exercise in quiet and casual intensity, George Clooney lucked out by having Philip Seymour Hoffman in this film. The film itself is a little more conventional and safe than some hoped, but the performances all around elevate it to greatness. Hoffman's speech to Ryan Gosling about loyalty would make anyone feel shame whether they were disloyal at any point in their life or not. Hoffman makes you feel, and that's something he did in every single role he inhabited.
Honestly, the above clip speaks for itself with Hoffman delivering a performance that shows he was exactly as the title indicates, a master of his craft. Personally, I disagree with the Academy's decision to give the Best Supporting Actor Oscar to Christoph Waltz for Django Unchained as opposed to Hoffman's captivating and piercing role as a cult leader in Paul Thomas Anderson's last collaboration with the actor.
I've saved this clip for last, if only because it offers a sobering and sad insight into addiction, which is made all the more real when considering how Hoffman left this world. Despite his attempt at sobriety, one that lasted half of his life, something caused a relapse. We may never know what that is, but this story of a gambler who can't pull himself away from the tables gives us a small clue. Hoffman likely had plenty of demons to draw from for this role, and this serves as a healthy reminder of just how much of himself, Hoffman poured into each and every character he played.
And if that's not enough, watch this In Memoriam reel of the actor's entire career (via The Playlist):
Looking back at the work of Philip Seymour Hoffman, there's not a single performance that felt phoned in, and each of his roles made every single film better. That's no easy feat, and it's truly a shame we won't get to see what else Hoffman could have done.
Having only seen Hoffman in person a couple times and only asking one single question of him in a Sundance Q&A just a couple weeks ago, it's safe to say that I didn't know the man at all. And yet, it's extremely hard to write this, knowing that it acts as a farewell to a man who still affected me on a number of levels, but who experienced a void I may never understand and never know; a void that unfortunately sent him to a solution that bought him an early grave.
There are those out there saying they have no sympathy for someone who makes a conscience choice to put a needle in their arm or abuse any sort of substance. This is an ignorant and inconsiderate stance against people who you don't know, and can't even begin to understand. People turn to drugs for a number of reasons because they are flawed, lost and don't know what to do. That doesn't mean they deserve any less sympathy or afterthought. You can condemn drugs all you want, but don't presume to think that means you can condemn those find themselves using them in moments of weakness that we all deal with in different ways. You can't draw a line of acceptance of other people's problems simply because you don't know how to put yourself in their shoes and comprehend their pain.
Philip Seymour Hoffman was a great actor, but he was also a man with a family. And that we can all appreciate. He will be missed. What were your favorite Philip Seymour Hoffman performances?