I’ve been taking Philip Seymour Hoffman’s greatness for granted for well over a decade now. Where did I first see him? Was it the devoted nurse Phil Parma in Magnolia? Maybe it was the alternately sweet and acerbic film critic Lester Bangs in Almost Famous. Or maybe it was Brandt, smiling assistant to The Big Lebowski.
I must have seen all of these films in about 2000-2001, associating Hoffman with quality in my mind. Over the next decade or so he would show up to great effect in film after film, serving each script in his own inimitably familiar way and to the best of his ability. The towering but soft-spoken intellect of Truman Capote in Capote. The hot-tempered mattress store owner/phone sex operator of Punch-Drunk Love. The charismatic cult leader of The Master. Best of all, the theatre director Caden Cotard in Synecdoche, New York, whose art slowly consumes his entire existence.
If current reports are true, it was heroin addiction that claimed his life. Hoffman gave two reference points for addiction: Owning Mahony (gambling) and Love Liza (huffing gasoline fumes). I often think back to a scene in Owning Mahony in particular, in which Hoffman’s character impassively describes his biggest gambling thrill as 100 on a scale of 1 to 100. Hoffman, who has previously discussed his problems with drug and alcohol addiction, brought an understanding to these performances that sticks with you long after you see them.
Based on the roles I’ve mentioned so far, it’d be reasonable for someone unfamiliar with Hoffman to imagine he was a serious, dour actor. However, he was quite capable of comedy, and a sense of humour shone through in most of his work in the same way a sense of humour is a constant undercurrent when you’re with your closest friends. His capacity to believably and naturally deliver the precise emotion required of a moment, combined with his often unkempt appearance, made him more relatable to audiences than most actors.
He was even capable of elevating painfully uninspired comedy into something quite enjoyable. I’m thinking of the Ben Stiller vehicle ‘Along Came Polly’, a bog-standard rom-com in which Stiller stumbles through a blandly wacky relationship with Jennifer Aniston. Hoffman plays Stiller’s best mate Sandy Lyle and steals every scene he’s in: trash-talking during a pick-up basketball game, delivering a nonsensical presentation to Stiller’s colleagues, and sharting at a party. Doesn’t sound like much, but in each of these scenes, Hoffman offers a different emotional hook we can all recognise: brashness to mask ineptitude (basketball) and ignorance (presentation), and embarrassment severe enough to demand immediate escape. All for the sake of amusement in a weak film, with genuine laughs as a result. That can’t be easy, but he makes it look like it is.
I only saw ‘Along Came Polly’ once, and that was ten years ago. I’m amazed at how well I remember Hoffman’s scenes. That’s a testament to the quality of his acting, which was so good for so long that it seems like he was much older than 46. His death is an unaccountable loss to cinema that will be felt ever more keenly over the years.