The Talented Mr Hoffman


Obituary: Philip Seymour Hoffman (1967-2014)

We were all shocked and saddened at the beginning of the month to hear of the untimely death of Philip Seymour Hoffman from a drug overdose.  One of the most impressive actors of his generation, he was anything but a conventional leading man; his bulky physique and unkempt presentation destined him instead for character parts.  A broken delivery and voice that seemed to hint at years of having to favour a hangover gave one the impression that the roué he cameo-ed in Cold Mountain may not have been far from the truth.

We first noticed him in P.T. Anderson’s Boogie Nights, as a closet gay boom operator, or some such, pertaining to a porno crew helmed by Burt Reynolds, but he had already done Hard Eight for the same director, with whom he would work repeatedly.  (A second viewing of 1992’s Scent of a Woman, with Al Pacino, also reveals him in a very early role, as an obnoxious frat boy!)

What struck us about those early roles – in Happiness, Magnolia, The Talented Mr Ripley – was his dependability in producing sensitive, nuanced and realistic portrayals of very real-seeming people: like his namesake Dustin in his prime, he seemed to embody his characters completely.  There was also the way his eyes perpetually appeared to be brimming with tears, and yes, just something of the flamboyant show-off about his performances, the Hopkinsesque love of a line delivered with a shout.

He could do comedy (The Big Lebowski) and villainy (Mission: Impossible III) with equal aplomb, and at the beginning of the millennium he started getting leading roles, in the frankly bizarre Love Liza, as a gasoline-addicted jilted lover, as the eponymous Capote, a masterpiece of impersonation, and as one of the two venal brothers in Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, humping Marisa Tomei for all she’s worth, in one of the most arresting opening shots of an American movie ever.

More recently he has done full justice to the ambiguous central priest character of Doubt, opposite Meryl Streep, returned to character roles as a political consultant in The Ides of March, and, most significantly of all, taken the part of Church of Scientology founder, the pseudonymous Lancaster Dodd, in Anderson’s The Master, netting him his fourth Academy Award nomination (he had won the statuette for Capote).

Hoffman has of course done far more work than this – and there are several films yet to reach our shores or in post-production – but what is equally certain is that we have lost many more of those moments of acting genius for the future.  What would Hoffman have been like as one of those elder statesmen/patriarch roles reserved for Hollywood’s ageing character actors?  We will never know.