Philip Seymour Hoffman: The Essential Performances
We all know that looks can define and limit an actress’s career, but it’s true for men as well – it just doesn’t get talked about as often. Unless they’re also really funny, dumpy guys don’t generally enjoy the kind of careers that Philip Seymour Hoffman has put together.
Once in a while Hollywood might throw an Academy Award at Ernest Borgnine (Marty, 1955), say, but consider that in the 56 years since – yes Ernie is still going strong in his nineties in movies like RED – Borgnine has scarcely played another lead. An actor like Gerard Depardieu would be hard pressed to get major roles in Hollywood, just on physique alone. The fatter Marlon Brando got, the shorter his screen time became.
But a better comparison for Hoffman would be Gene Hackman.
Hackman never had movie star looks, but he got noticed for unusually gritty supporting performances in movies like Bonnie and Clyde, worked constantly, and wound up riding a wave of popularity in The French Connection, The Poseidon Adventure as well as smaller, smarter films like The Conversation and Night Moves. Hackman gave audiences something different, and his personality – stubborn, irascible, wry, smart - was strong enough for audiences to look beyond looks.
Hoffman’s no sex symbol, and he hasn’t tried to be one either. It’s rare to find an actor so free of vanity. In his new film Jack Goes Boating, which is also the first film he’s directed, he plays the romantic lead. But it’s a romantic lead who sports a toque like a tea cosy for much of the film, and who will precede a kiss with the promise: “Nothing overwhelming.”
He also spends several scenes of the movie learning to swim, and it’s immediately obvious that not only has the actor not visited a gym in several years (if ever), he hasn’t exposed himself to the sunshine in recent memory.
Hoffman’s made a niche for himself by playing the kind of guys who don’t “look after themselves”, who aren’t sporty or wealthy and who find it hard to get a date… The type that is easily overlooked even in a not so crowded room. Often, his characters are unhappy. They’re socially marginalized, or they’re writers and academics – which amounts to much the same thing. Luckily for Hoffman, that’s a type of character screenwriters can relate to: see State And Main, The Savages, Synecdoche, New York, Capote, for starters. And not only writers: most of us have a lonely, insecure, vulnerable, socially maladroit side, even if we try to suppress it.
You don’t need me to tell you, it’s no secret, he is almost always great. Even in really small roles, Philip Seymour Hoffman has the knack of inserting himself in your memory banks. His nobodies somehow achieve the kind of pathos that sticks with you.
For instance, off the top of my head: Top 5 PSH supporting roles:
1. Brandt (The Big Lebowski)The butler did it. That is, made me laugh, which mostly the Coens’ farcical riff on Raymond Chandler doesn’t.
2. Phil Parma (Magnolia)The male nurse who tends for Jason Robards on his sick bed. Robards is stuck with the worst of the movie’s speechifying, but Hoffman’s honest emotion rescues the movie from its own excess.
3. Freddie Miles (The Talented Mr Ripley)He’s on screen for, what? Five minutes? But his showdown with Jude Law is the most thrilling thing in the entire film.
4. Lester Bangs (Almost Famous)He was too: almost famous by this point. Cameron Crowe entrusted PSH with the task of playing the legendary rock n roll critic, and of course he’s so good he makes the rest of the movie seem trite and shallow.
Philip Bosco’s judge for his trouble.
Looking just at that list, which has a combined screen time of maybe 30-40 minutes, it should be clear that Hoffman’s range goes deeper and wider than we sometimes think. He can play across the class spectrum: snobs, aristocrats, cops, nurses... He can play gay or straight, clever or stupid, clued in or clueless. You might not believe it, but he can play happy too (just don’t expect to find it in Happiness, where his sex pest caller is probably the most pathetic creature Hoffman has ever played).
Let’s take a look at his best performances in more substantial parts:
1. Truman Capote (Capote)
2. Gust Avrakatos (Charlie Wilson’s War)
3. Caden Cotard (Synecdoche, New York)
4. Andy Hanson (Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead)
5= Father Brendan Flynn (Doubt)
5= Jon Savage (The Savages)
He won an Oscar for the first and was nominated for Doubt and Charlie Wilson’s War in the supporting category (though by any rational criteria Father Brendan was a lead role).
It’s a list that would make even the great Gene Hackman green with envy. Again, it belies the idea that PSH is a known quantity. There’s a biopic, a comedy, a surreal art film, a neo-noir thriller, a religious ethical drama, and an indie character comedy.
Does it matter that he looked and sounded nothing like Truman Capote? No, because he illuminated the ego, the genius, the sensitivity and the selfishness of the artist. Hoffman is brilliant in the part. But then he’s scarcely less so as the progressive but possibly abusive pries in Doubt, or the craven accountant in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.
Still, I think my own personal favourite would be Gust in Mike Nichols’ flawed but rambunctious Charlie Wilson’s War. It’s not a lead role, like Synecdoche, New York, or a heart-tugger like The Savages, but Hoffman is hilarious as the angry, exuberant, don’t-give-a-damn CIA op – and nothing at all like the sad-sack lonely boy we usually associate with him.
With another lead role coming up in Paul Thomas Anderson’s next movie, The Master, there’s every reason to suppose that PSH will remain a vital figure in American cinema over the next decade… Just don’t look for him at your local gym.
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