Philip Seymour Hoffman (July 23, 1967 – February 2, 2014) was an American actor, on stage and screen. Not a celebrity. Not a movie star. An actor. One of the great actors of our time.
He won the Academy Award for Best Actor for Capote (2005), a subtle and shaded performance of a complex gay American writer. He was nominated three times for Best Supporting Actor and received three Tony Award nominations for his work in theatre, most recently as Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.
The un-words take you closer to his work, and what comes through to you when viewing his work, than other sets of words. He was uncool. A little overweight, didn’t go out of his way to impress you in interviews. Uncomfortable. He looked like the proverbial deer in the headlights. Startled. Unsure of what to say when he didn’t have a role to say it in. Unkempt. He looked like he just got out of bed, forgot to comb his hair or a put a tie on. Undaunted.
What other actor could go scene for scene with Meryl Streep as he did in Doubt and hold his own? What actor, male or female, could play a crazed visionary in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master and make you feel sympathy for his megalomania?
It seemed like he could play anything – a priest (Doubt), a visionary (The Master), a rich kid from prep school (The Talented Mr. Ripley), a troubled sycophant (Boogie Nights), a gambling addict (Owning Mahowney). No matter how small the role, he could inhabit a character and somehow find the hurt, the vulnerability, the longing. My personal favourite is a quiet role in A Late Quartet where he portrays a musician’s ordinariness and his understated passion for music.
He wasn’t handsome like a Ben Affleck, or smooth like a George Clooney. He was rumpled. Dishevelled. Sometimes hesitant and stuttering in interviews, shy and lost on the red carpet, he could play all the roles perhaps, except one—himself.
Of all the things I’ve read following his death, the article by Leah McLaren (The Globe and Mail, Feb. 3) entitled “What two voicemail messages taught me about Philip Seymour Hoffman” stands out most. Hoffman phoned McLaren to praise a young actor she was profiling. That in itself is surprising. You usually expect an agent as a go-between in such matters. In the first call he left this message: “Hey Leah, it’s Phil Hoffman calling.” A pause. And then, “Uh, I’ll call you back in like 10 minutes or so.” He does. And in the second call, he says a few words about the actor in question and then, “Okay, if that was our last chance to talk I’m sorry I missed you.”
A lot comes through in a few words on this voicemail. Humility. Conscientiousness. Manners. Informality. Attention to small details.
Of Hoffman’s words in the roles he played, what I remember most poignantly is the patch of dialogue between him (as Lester Bangs a seasoned rock journalist) and Patrick Fugit (as William Miller a young aspiring rock journalist) in Almost Famous:
Lester Bangs: Yeah, great art is about conflict and pain and guilt and longing and love disguised as sex, and sex disguised as love… and let’s face it, you got a big head start.
William Miller: I’m glad you were home.
Lester Bangs: I’m always home. I’m uncool.
William Miller: Me too!
Lester Bangs: The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone else when we’re uncool.
William Miller: I feel better.
Lester Bangs: My advice to you. I know you think those guys are your friends. You wanna be a true friend to them? Be honest, and unmerciful.
This too says a lot. Great art really is about conflict and pain and guilt and longing and Hoffman could enflesh these emotions with unmatched sensitivity and honesty. He sometimes gave you the impression that he wasn’t acting – he was simply portraying authenticity of character and unmerciful self-awareness.