Philip Seymour Hoffman, master of screen and stage, dies at 46

A tribute to the Academy Award-winning actor considered one of the best of his generation.

One of my favorite film critics, Sam Adams of The Dissolve and Indiewire, said it best when he tweeted this:

“Writers trying to figure out the first line for your PSH obit: I suggest ‘Jesus, where do I start?’”

Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead on February 2 in his New York City apartment. The cause isn’t confirmed yet, but early reports suggest a drug overdose. It’s a sad ending for the actor, who checked into rehab last year after relapsing following twenty odd years of sobriety.

Hoffman was the consummate actor's actor and portrayed a wide array of characters.

Had you asked me yesterday, there would have been just a couple of actors who would have rivaled Hoffman for the title of “Greatest Living Actor.” As for who had the best body of work over the past few decades: not a single one comes close to him.

Hoffman’s first break came with Scent of a Woman in 1992, a film best known for Al Pacino’s over-the-top, Oscar-winning performance. The film and Pacino’s work have aged poorly, but as Chris O’Donnell’s sniveling classmate, Hoffman stood out. “Who is this guy,” we wondered.

Paul Thomas Anderson, my pick for the finest filmmaker working today, was one of the first people to notice him, and he put him in one scene in his debut Hard Eight. Over the course of three minutes, his loudmouthed craps player went from obnoxious to pitiable. Again, we asked, “who is this guy?”

Anderson cast him again in Boogie Nights as Scotty J, a closeted boom operator secretly in love with porn star Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg). Hoffman plays Scotty as a schlubby, well-meaning dork, and his embarrassment after Dirk rejects him is heartbreaking. “Who is this guy?”

We found out. In the late 1990s, Hoffman became a go-to character actor for up-and-coming directors. All of the sudden, he was inescapable, giving two or three great performances a year.

In 1998, he was both the hilariously unctuous butler in the Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Big Lebowski and the lonely, introverted sex crank caller in Todd Solondz’s Happiness

In 1999, we saw just how wide his range was when he played a drag queen in Flawless, Jude Law’s pretentious friend Freddie Miles in The Talented Mr. Ripley, and  Phil Parma of Anderson’s Magnolia, one of the kindest and most purely empathetic characters in the history of the big screen.

In 2002, he was a sleazy reporter in the otherwise unmemorable Red Dragon, a grieving husband in Love Liza, a hysterically scummy businessman in Punch-Drunk Love (another Anderson film), and a neurotic high school English teacher with a crush on his student in Spike Lee’s 25th Hour

These are all wildly varying roles, and he was wholly convincing in all of them. 

When he played a real person, as he did as rock critic Lester Bangs in Almost Famous or as Truman Capote in Capote, he went beyond mimicry. He embodied their vanity, their insecurities, their intelligence. He made dead men come alive, and men who had become legendary figures feel human again.

He would win an Oscar for Best Actor for his work in Capote, at which point he went from being an instantly recognizable character actor to one of the most sought out performers of his generation.

He elevated every project he was in. On paper, his villain role in Mission: Impossible III is nothing. In the film, he’s gleefully arrogant and evil. Charlie Wilson’s War was a too slick and insubstantial a look at U.S. arms dealing to Afghanistan during the Cold War, but Hoffman’s curmudgeonly CIA agent got him a well-deserved Best Supporting Actor nomination.

He made us feel empathy for creeps, like Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead’s drug-addicted criminal, or the accused priest in Doubt (another Oscar nomination).

He made men who were falling apart seem like one of us: the sad-sack son of a dying man in The Savages, or a playwright whose personal life falls in shambles as he single-mindedly devotes himself to his art in Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York.

All of this comes without mentioning my favorite Hoffman performance: as Lancaster Dodd in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, a cult leader loosely based off of L. Ron Hubbard, and his most recent Oscar-nominated work.

Dodd is Hoffman at the top of his game, with each syllable and gesticulation as a carefully measured, hypnotic move to draw in the easily controlled. Yet Dodd is still a sympathetic character, a man searching for something that makes sense in a world that clearly doesn’t.

It’s not Hoffman’s final role. He has a handful of projects that debuted at Sundance this year – the spy thriller A Most Wanted Man, John Slattery’s directorial debut God’s Pocket – as well as the remaining Hunger Games movies, assuming he finished his scenes.

But it’s the role I’m always going to remember him for, whether Dodd’s losing his cool when his authority is questioned or he’s professing his (possibly platonic, possibly not) love for Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell by singing “Slow Boat to China”

This is all without addressing a number of well-liked Hoffman performances I haven’t seen (Owning Mahowny, Empire Falls, State and Main), or his promising, short-lived directing career that began with Jack Goes Boating and would have continued with Ezekiel Moss, which cast Jake Gyllenhaal and Amy Adams just a few days before Hoffman’s death.

It’s also without addressing his acclaimed theater work in productions of Death of a Salesman and Long Day’s Journey Into Night, or as the director of Stephen Adly Guirgus’s excellent play The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.

It doesn’t take into consideration how much his fellow actors and directors complimented him for his kindness and his dedication, or how his wife and three young children have lost a father and a husband.

At 46 years old, Philip Seymour Hoffman has left behind a body of work as vast as it is indelible. It’s our loss, and the loss of several decades worth of film, theater, and television, that it’s been cut short. 

What’s the best way for movie lovers to celebrate his life and mourn his death? Go find and watch a great performance he gave. You won’t have to look hard.

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