A look back at the amazing career of an actor gone too soon
The first time I laid my eyes on Philip Seymour Hoffman was eventful in a backwards type of way. As a kid, I was seriously pumped up to go to the theater and see the movie “Twister,” a weather-driven action film from Jan De Bont that starred Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt. I knew Paxton from “True Lies” and “Apollo 13” and everyone knew Hunt as Paul Reiser’s main squeeze on NBC’s “Mad About You.” The young me even quickly figured out that Cary Elwes, the bad guy that is not the twister in the film, from his lead role in the hilarious “Robin Hood: Men In Tights.” But Hoffman, playing a Wolfman Jack-like member of the storm team named Dusty, was a fresh face. Although it was a bit part in a summer blockbuster, his deadpan delivery of lines and grungy presentation was just enough for me to keep interest in his character and remember his face down the road.
Two years later, as I grew more mature and advanced with my appreciation of the risk-taking independent cinema that exploded in the 1990’s, I found Mr. Hoffman once again, and this time, he made sure I would not remember him merely in passing. In the magnificent L.A. disco-era pic “Boogie Nights,” Hoffman was a revelation as Scotty J., a glad-handing hanger-on for Jack Horner’s adult film crew. In the movie, Scotty grows peculiarly enamored with Jack’s brightest discovery in a young man named Eddie, played by Mark Wahlberg, whose screen name becomes Dirk Diggler. It is one of my five or ten favorite movies of all time for so many different and amazing reasons, but the ballad of Scotty J. that plays out in this film is definitely one of them. At first, you backhand the character in the early going simply as a comic relief who does a really bad job of hiding his obsessive lust for Dirk.
But during a pivotal point in the movie at a New Year’s Eve party, Scotty finally musters up the courage (thanks to a drink or two) to kiss Dirk after showing off his new car. Dirk immediately shies away from the hilariously candid advances by Scotty (“Can I kiss you on the mouth?”) and takes a walk. Scotty sits alone in his new car, which he admitted buying only to impress the man he adores, as he sobs and repeatedly calls himself an idiot. To watch a seemingly innocent, happy-go-lucky guy like Scotty suddenly take such a somber dip into the pits of misery was a turning point in the film as an omen for all the bad things to come for Dirk, Jack, and just about everyone else as they rang in the 1980’s and the movie’s saddest act. The scene was not only powerful in its emotional turbulence, it was a coming out party (no pun intended) for Philip Seymour Hoffman as a blessed character actor.
Hoffman was born and raised in New York with three other siblings, and his parents divorced when he was nine years old. In the 1980’s, Hoffman found his first calling as an actor in the theater, going right into acting school the summer after graduating from Fairport High School. He eventually earned an acting degree at the distinguished Tisch School of the Arts at N.Y.U. He created a theater company shortly thereafter, but he also suffered from substance abuse after graduating college. It got so bad that by age 22, he went into rehab and get sober. His personal bouts were treacherous, but his talent was good enough to get him part in a 1991 episode of “Law and Order” and 1992’s “Scent of a Woman.” When he got his first role, he was working as a stock boy a grocery store. The roles (and screen time within those roles) slowly grew in the early 90’s as he supported bigger stars in movies like Steve Martin’s “Leap of Faith,” John Cusack’s “Money for Nothing,” Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger’s “The Getaway,” and Paul Newman’s “Nobody’s Fool.”
In 1996, Hoffman collaborated with a young and hungry filmmaker from California named Paul Thomas Anderson. In Anderson’s first film “Hard Eight,” Hoffman was in only one scene, but it sure packed a punch. He plays a wayward craps player who is cockier than he is good against the lead character Sydney, played by another P.T.A. alum, Philip Baker Hall. He even utters the movie’s title as he profanely calls out Sydney as a “big time” and eventually rolls himself into oblivion. The character he played did not even have a name, but they made sure you would not forget who this guy was. In the years after what many considered his breakout role on “Boogie Nights,” his second of five works with Paul Thomas Anderson, he continued to lay somewhat low, mixing in smaller parts in mainstream fare like “The Big Lebowski” and “Patch Adams” with lead roles in genre-benders like the kinda- romance “Next Stop Wonderland” and the completely messed-up “Happiness.”
Although he was appreciated from afar as a future prospect previously, it was in 1999 that Hoffman won over critics and garnered awards talk with “Flawless” as a generous drag queen who befriends an ex-cop played by Robert De Niro. Leave it to a guy like Hoffman to take a movie written AND directed by the often-hated Joel Schumacher and turn it into an acting masterclass. No longer were people secretly wondering if he was related to Dustin Hoffman somehow but waiting to see what absurd role he would try out next. 1999 and 2000 turned out to be the years when the studio floodgates opened up to the eclectic one as he did his third Paul Thomas Anderson film “Magnolia,” the Best Picture-nominated “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” David Mamet’s “State and Main,” and Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous.” Per usual with Hoffman, he barely spends 10 minutes in “Almost Famous” as a fried out rock writer, but he damn near steals the movie when he’s on.
By 2002, he had gained enough Hollywood momentum to make a screenplay written by his brother Gordy, a drama called “Love Liza.” The film is an emotionally raw story of a man whose wife commits suicide and leave him and her mother, played by Kathy Bates, to try to put the pieces of their shattered lives back together. Hoffman’s character does so by sniffing gas fumes and trying to elaborately hide it. The movie was a small independent one, but it continued the trend of Hoffman taking amazing chances with his roles, delving into acts of humility and downtrodden macabre that made you wonder if this guy would ever actually win for once. He went from unlikely hero in “Magnolia” to a straight-up villain in his fourth P.T.A. film “Punch Drunk Love” with Adam Sandler. As Dean Trumbell, a mattress store owner who cons lonely men via phone sex, it is on a phone that an explosive back-and-forth between he and Sandler breathes life back into an otherwise dull movie.
The career of Hoffman grew exponentially from there, and even in the misfires, he never kept you running away from the screen. His tragic portrayal of gossip writer Freddie Lounds in “Red Dragon” (which has been done three times now) remains my favorite one. He was an embattled teacher in one of my favorite movies Spike Lee ever did, “25th Hour.” He re-teamed with the late Anthony Minghella to play a reverend in the Civil War epic “Cold Mountain.” Like he did for devoted film critics who first saw him in “Hard Eight” and “Boogie Nights,” Hoffman stole the show in the successful comedy “Along Came Polly” in what might be the funniest pick-up basketball scene in movie history (I’ll put it this way: I still shiver when I hear the words “shirts versus skins” because of this). The stage alumni continued honing his comedic skills in the sneaky-good “Strangers With Candy.”
After doing a HBO mini-series called “Empire Falls,” Hoffman and former New York theater colleague Bennett Miller came together to make what had been put on retainer in Hollywood for years: A Truman Capote biopic. After going forward with filming, another biopic starring Toby James fired up looking to get on the controversial “In Cold Blood” writer’s celluloid coattails. But “Infamous” came out a year before Hoffman’s, who knocked the socks off of audiences and critics alike with his fascinating take on the title role. It was a channeling the likes of which Daniel Day-Lewis would have been impressed by; he didn’t play Truman Capote as much as he did transform into him for the sake of the arts. His performance was unanimously praised and at the Academy Awards in 2006, Hoffman won his only Oscar for Best Actor. He was on such a roll that he was almost able to single-handily rescue the overdone “Mission: Impossible III” with by far the most sinister bad guy that movie franchise has ever witnessed.
It got to a point where when you saw Philip Seymour Hoffman’s name billed on a project or a movie release, you were inspired to think that it was in good hands at least for the scenes that he was involved in, even if it was in a lesser role. After winning the Oscar for Best Actor, he was nominated twice for Best Supporting Actor: One in the big-budget Robert Zemeckis political comedy “Charlie Wilson’s War,” and the other in the hotly debated religious drama “Doubt.” He always made calculated but great choices for the directors he worked with, from the late Sidney Lumet for the intense “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” to Tamara Jenkins for the dysfunctional brother-sister dramedy “The Savages.” His most daring take may have come in 2008 when he played stage director Caden Cotard in Charlie Kaufman’s self-obsessed and riddling “Synecdoche, New York.” It seemed so close to home for Hoffman, as he played a New York man devoted to the theater who obsessively builds an elaborately staged version of his own life as the layers of truth, beauty, love, hate, and self-loathing continue to dig deeper until there is no escape from the madness. The movie is truly puzzling, but Hoffman played the part almost as if he was born to do it.
Hoffman would experiment in later years with the English by playing in “The Boat That Rocked” and with Ricky Gervais in “The Invention of Lying.” He voiced the lead role in “Mary and Max,” an Australian stop-motion animated film with Toni Collette. He directed his first movie “Jack Goes Boating,” a shy romance based on a play for which he starred in the original production three years earlier and got rave reviews. On the theater side, Hoffman directed numerous shows he has starred in from Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull” to Sam Shepard’s hard-boiled “True West.” It was onstage in 1999 while directing “In Arabia We’d All Be Kings” that he met his future wife Mimi O’Donnell. He loved Shakespeare and turned heads as the evil Iago in “Othello” years ago. His greatest bow may have been in 2012 as the iconic Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” which earned him a Tony Award nomination. Many thought his performance was just as impressive as another Hoffman who became synonymous with that role decades earlier. Sadly, Hoffman, whose first love was performing in front of the masses instead of via a projection screen, saved his best stage performance for last.
As he became a go-to name when studios came calling for films, Hoffman showed his unbelievable range even to the very end. He played the no-frills baseball manager Art Howe in “Moneyball,” nary a smile or wink in sight. He was the reluctant mentor to Ryan Gosling’s character in the George Clooney-directed political thriller “The Ides of March” (also based originally on a play). He may have done the impossible last year when he did “A Late Quartet,” a movie about violinists that moves along without ever a bore. To say Hoffman had a lot on his plate going into 2014 would be putting it mildly. He was in the middle of filming the last two installments of “The Hunger Games,” for which he debuted last November as game maker Plutarch Heavensbee. He had just finished a tour at the Sundance Film Festival to promote two films: Anton Corbijn’s dark espionage film “A Most Wanted Man” and John Slattery’s “God’s Pocket.” Speaking to Hoffman’s appreciation for the literary arts, the films were based on novels by John le Carre and Pete Dexter.
It was at Sundance that reports surfaced that Hoffman would direct Jake Gylenhaal and Amy Adams in “Ezekial Moss,” a supernatural drama set during the Great Depression. Only weeks later, Hoffman is dead after being found alone in his Manhattan apartment Sunday morning with a needle in his arm. Early police reports suggest that Hoffman’s tragic turn was the result an overdose. He leaves behind his wife along with two daughters and a son. He had fought off his drug addictions during his college days in New York but suffered a relapse last year and checked himself into rehab after admitting to a reliance on pain pills and heroin. Like many of his scene-stealing performances, Hoffman’s brilliance was conjoined by a somber inner battle that exhibited raw humanism but also relegated him to a sad and disturbing fate.
His pear-shaped frame, pale face, and soggy blond hair were ordinary features on the surface that contradicted the talents of an extraordinary man. Unfortunately, it was that same talent and ability to constantly reach into the saddest states of being that possessed his personal habits, leading to where we are at now, one great actor removed in the flawed but eclectic world of acting. The last movie I went to the theater to see him in was his final team-up with his cinema partner Paul Thomas Anderson. In “The Master,” Hoffman played Lancaster Dodd, the self-proclaimed leader of The Cause, an unconventional spiritual movement that bore striking resemblances to L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology. It was my favorite film in 2012 and the final conversation between Dodd and his beloved but dangerous protege Freddie Quall (played by Joaquin Phoenix) is strange yet emotionally devastating.
In the final meeting before Freddie is forever banished from The Cause, Dodd sings the lyrics to the crooning “On a Slow Boat to China,” as his ill-fated goodbye to his mentally broken friend. Freddie sheds tears as Dodd sings, “Get you and keep you in my arms evermore/Leave all the others/waitin’ on a faraway shore.” Hoffman’s character proudly sings the song hoping that the beauty could last forever but knowing that the end has arrived. Today, watching it again, it feels like Hoffman, through the immortality of his craft, is singing that same sad song to me, and I am the one sitting on the other end tearfully wishing it wasn’t the last time.