The Good, The Bad & The Badass: Philip Seymour Hoffman
Shortly after I completed last week’s column on Bill Murray, the sad news of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman’s passing started to make the news. In the talk-back section of the Murray column, a reader wrote that it was unfortunate Hoffman never got featured in this column, as he was more than worthy. This week we decided to give Hoffman the entry that he was long overdue.
I was devastated to hear of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death. He's been one of my favorite actors since I was sixteen and saw BOOGIE NIGHTS for the first time. Over the years, Hoffman proved himself again and again as one of the finest actors of his generation in movies like HAPPINESS, ALMOST FAMOUS, CAPOTE, THE SAVAGES, MAGNOLIA, PUNCH DRUNK LOVE, THE MASTER, CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR, and many others. Most actors phone it in from time-to-time, but Hoffman was a different breed. Even in a lark like ALONG CAME POLLY, Hoffman gave his all.
While I wouldn’t call it one of his best roles, for me MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE: III is a film that perfectly sums what made Hoffman so brilliant. I know most of you probably think I’m nuts highlighting a “baddie” part in an action movie as one of the performances that defines such an incredible career, but let me explain. At the time, he was just coming off his Academy Award win for Best Actor in CAPOTE, and now was doing this huge action film which he (presumably) got a big paycheck for, something unusual for Hoffman who tended to focus his efforts on indies or the stage. I’m sure he made good money, but he never seemed to be an actor that jumped on parts just because the money was good. Even his last film, GOD’S POCKET, was a tiny indie project that's was clearly a pet project and nothing that would ever line his pockets.
An academy award winner taking a paycheck part in a franchise movie is nothing unusual, but often they seem to treat it as some kind of lark, as if an action movie isn’t worth their best efforts (one of the worst examples of this is Edward Norton’s contractually obligated non-performance in THE ITALIAN JOB). Hoffman did the opposite. He took what could have been a two-dimensional bad guy role and went full-on method with it, making his character an absolutely terrifying baddie that- in my opinion- is a classic. While he wasn’t much of a physical threat to Tom Cruise, intellectually he was ferocious, and while Cruise’s Ethan Hunt was already a superman by this point, it’s one of the few action movies I’ve ever seen where the hero felt truly outmatched by the baddie. At times Hoffman even seemed to be toying with Cruise personally, as whenever they had a scene together and Cruise would start to get tough, Hoffman would just shut him down, cutting him off every time. To Cruise’s credit he never tried to have Hoffman reigned in, and both of their performances benefit from the tension. The best example of this is the airplane scene where Hoffman tells Cruise about all the things he’s going to do to his love interest (Michelle Monaghan) when he gets free. Even when Hunt threatens to throw him out of the plane, Hoffman just doesn’t care, as he knows Hunt has no choice but to keep him alive. It’s a brilliant performance, but brilliance was nothing out of the ordinary for Hoffman, and crazy enough I wouldn’t even rank his part in M:I:3 as one his better roles. The guy just never stopped delivering.
What made Hoffman’s death especially disturbing to me was that I had just seen him at Sundance, where he was there with two films, GOD’S POCKET and A MOST WANTED MAN. Right up to the end, Hoffman was all about the work, and whatever personal problems he may have been facing at the time, you would have never known from either watching the films, or any of the interviews he did when he promoted them at the fest. I wish I had the chance to interview him, as by all accounts he was a humble, gracious man. Nevertheless, his legacy lives on through the dozen of amazing films he acted in, many of which are already classics.
There are so many to choose from here. For my money, Hoffman was never better than when he worked with Paul Thomas Anderson. In BOOGIE NIGHTS he gave what could have just been a peripheral character depth. He was even better in MAGNOLIA, with a nice change-of-pace playing Phil Parma, a compassionate hospice worker determined to somehow allow Jason Robards Jr.’s anguished millionaire to die in peace by reuniting him with his son- a justifiably angry Tom Cruise. Following that, he was hilarious in PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE (SHUT UP! SHUT THE FUCK UP! SHUT SHUT SHUT SHUT SHUTUP... SHUTUP!) and in his most prominent Anderson role to date, brilliantly played guru/huckster Lancaster Dodd in THE MASTER.
That said, for his absolute best performance I have to agree with the Academy on this one, with his richly deserved Oscar for playing Truman Capote in CAPOTE. Poor Toby Jones. That same year, he did a good job as Capote in INFAMOUS, but he just couldn’t compare to either Hoffman’s performance or the film itself. Hoffman, a husky, macho guy seemed like an odd choice to play the smallish, fey Capote, but he nailed it, from the voice to the mannerisms (just watch how he smokes a cigarette in it). I was so taken with his performance in CAPOTE that immediately after seeing it I went to the bookstore and bought a copy of IN COLD BLOOD.
Overrated and Philip Seymour Hoffman do not belong in the same sentence. Even when his movies are bad, Hoffman is great. The only performance of his that might be slightly overrated is his part as Plutarch Heavensbee in CATCHING FIRE, with the character seeming a tad minor for his talents. Apparently he has more of a presence in MOCKINGJAY.
One a lot of folks haven’t seen is OWNING MAHOWNY, a tiny Canadian indie film that played the festival circuit in 2003. Based on the true story of a Toronto bank employee who embezzled millions to feed his gambling habit, Hoffman is once again brilliant. Mahowny is a tough role, and Hoffman doesn’t play him as immediately sympathetic, although he’s easy to identify with. The way he conveys Mahowny’s addiction to gambling hits pretty close to home, with Hoffman conveying both the character’s desperation and intoxication with the danger of his situation. If you haven’t seen this one, it’s a must-see.
Philip Seymour Hoffman only had a small part in Cameron Crowe's ALMOST FAMOUS, but it was an important one. He played Lester Bangs, the famous rock critic/journalist who took director Crowe under his wing as a lad (ALMOST FAMOUS was based on Crowe’s own life as a teenage rock journalist) giving him his first paid writing assignment. Hoffman plays Bangs as both insufferably self-absorbed, but also incredibly generous with his time and talent, and his chemistry with Patrick Fugit is spot-on. Hoffman only has a handful of scenes, but he makes all of them stunningly memorable, especially in the justifiably famous “diner scene”. Watch and be amazed.
Happily for fans, there are a few more Philip Seymour Hoffman performances on the horizon, with both GOD’S POCKET and A MOST WANTED MAN due out before the end of the year. Apparently, Hoffman’s filming for both parts of MOCKINGJAY is essentially done, and the part won’t be recast, so at least us fans have that to look forward to. Having seen the two Sundance movies, I can say that Hoffman is great in both, especially A MOST WANTED MAN. Rest in peace good sir and thanks for all the wonderful work. You will be missed, and never, ever forgotten.
CLICK IMAGE TO OPEN GALLERY & SEE MORE PICS...