Philip Seymour Hoffman: a strange kind of movie star

Rather than being bullied into adoration by tub-thumping promotion, filmgoers felt they had discovered Hoffman all on their own

When an actor dies too young – let’s name no other names – we sometimes err on the side of hyperbolic adulation. Why not? It’s only polite. Nobody wants the fellow’s mum to read that he was a talentless bum.

There has, however, been no sense of post-mortem inflation in the copious eulogies to Philip Seymour Hoffman. It is some small consolation that so many people cared about an actor who never played the lead in a box-office smash.

He did lurk sinisterly amid shadowy corners in the last Hunger Games picture. He was a villain in Mission Impossible: III. But the round, wheezy upstate New Yorker was never going to be confused with the latest successor to Biff Wizkid.

So what accounts for the singular surge of affection since his death on Sunday? Well, in a world where most celebrities allow themselves to be marketed like salad cream, Philip Seymour Hoffman pursued his career with unhurried, thoughtful dignity. Glancing through his CV, you would have trouble locating any roles that were taken solely to solidify his place in Hollywood’s shop window.


Way back in 1992, then just 25, he appeared opposite Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman. Thus began a leisurely crawl up the slippery ramp. Who's that fellow in Happiness? Isn't he the same guy who was in Boogie Nights?

It took nearly a decade for him to achieve the respect he deserved. The result was that, rather than being bullied into adoration by tub-thumping promotion, filmgoers felt they had discovered Hoffman all on their own. He was an acquired taste that most sensible people eventually acquired.

It helped that he didn’t look like any sort of Adonis. Hoffman was not a thin fellow. He had the sort of tired, pillowed face you expect to see emerging from a tollbooth window or lurking over a pawnshop counter.

And yet, he could exhibit the delicacy of movement that allows many larger actors – think Zero Mostel and Oliver Hardy – to draw all attention in their direction. Just watch his surprising, Oscar-winning performance as Truman Capote in Bennett Miller's Capote. The southern writer was a famously tiny man. But so contained were Hoffman's motions that one never thought to ask why a man of average height had been cast. He shrank himself into the role.

Incomparable technique
All of which is a way of saying that he had incomparable technique. In the golden days of cinema, Hollywood enlisted several armies of incomparable character actors. One thinks of Walter Brennan, Wallace Beery and Sydney Greenstreet. Yet those actors rarely attempted to stretch beyond a two-octave range.

Hoffman was identified as a “character actor” because he rarely played the lead, but a glance at the scope of his performances reveals the emptiness of that categorisation.

One need only look at the array of characters he played for just one director. In Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights he essayed a pathetic boom operator who, while working in the pornography industry, falls for Mark Wahlberg's massively endowed star. In the same director's Magnolia, he plays with a different class of sadness: a nurse who tries to do the decent thing for a dying man. His voice is slower and richer. He holds himself in a less fidgety slump. But this is still a sat-upon man. Look, then, to his turn as the deranged guru in Anderson's The Master. Playing a version of L Ron Hubbard, the deviser of Scientology, Hoffman now straddles the screen with a leg-splayed confidence. The voice has changed. The twitchy delivery he used for Boogie Nights and the whispered drawl he employed in Magnolia have been replaced by a sandpapery scrape.

None of these alterations is enormous. Unlike Olivier, he didn’t pull on funny noses and false teeth to create broadly defined grotesques. He just shrugged and became somebody else.

Distinguished on stage
It should be remembered that Hoffman was also a great stage actor. He played Konstantin in Mike Nichols's production of The Seagull for the Joseph Papp Public Theater in Central Park. He won a Tony nomination as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman.

In 2000, this newspaper's Fintan O'Toole saw him in a production of Sam Shepard's True West and offered sound predictions as to his future. "Hoffman, whose film career has gone into orbit with Magnolia and The Talented Mr Ripley, is all set to become the most forceful actor of his generation," he wrote.

He switched between disciplines with admirable ease. He may have been a large man, but he rarely felt the need to give a large performance. Lean into his turn as a theatre director succumbing to madness in Charlie Kaufman's brilliant Synecdoche, New York and you can hear the saliva bubbles popping in his mouth. There is an intimacy here that stage specialists sometimes struggle to attain.

It is invidious to wonder whether any other actor can step into his shoes. Of course none can. After all, nobody could quite step into the shoes of Charles Bronson, Mae West or Buster Keaton. That's the thing about being an individual. Equally, there are few obvious predecessors in the business. Robert De Niro was much more of an alpha male. Marlon Brando allowed more of his own psychoses to colour his performances. Both could – after some hammering of rough edges – be squeezed into the mainstream leading-man template.

If any actor works as a spiritual ancestor it would be Charles Laughton. Like Hoffman, the Yorkshire man harboured various unhelpful demons – despite being gay, he stayed married for more than 30 years – and made a virtue of his weighty frame and knocked-about face. Both were adept at playing pathetic losers and deranged megalomaniacs. And both passed away relatively young. Laughton made it to 63. Hoffman died, reportedly with a syringe in his arm, at just 46. He seemed to be just getting into his stride. We will never see his Falstaff or his Captain Ahab. We will never get to see him age into grizzled distinction.

More than one obituary has toyed with the cliche “greatest actor of his generation”. For once, that phrase need not be dismissed as hype.


Happiness (1998)
Being the most miserable figure in a Todd Solondz film is rather like being the tallest player in the NBA. It takes some doing. But Hoffman is remarkably sad as the lonely Joe making obscene phone calls to the pretty girl across the street.

Almost Famous (2000)
The awareness that music critic Lester Bangs – whom Hoffman played with relish in Cameron Crowe's too-sunny rock drama – also died of a drug overdose now adds unintended poignancy to the film. But it remains a joyously vituperative turn.

Capote (2005)
With that high, affected voice and those pursed lips, Truman Capote invited outrageous, over-egged impersonation. Hoffman's solution was to turn all the dials down by a notch or two. He won an Oscar.

Synecdoche, New York (2008)
One of the most underappreciated of Hoffman's major performances. Don't be scared off by the impenetrability of Charlie Kaufman's script. Hoffman's quiet turn brings Beckettian weight to the despair.

The Master (2012)
Paul Thomas Anderson invited Hoffman to create his own Citizen Kane in this sideways take on L Ron Hubbard and post-war anxiety. He obliged with his greatest performance.