RIP Philip Seymour Hoffman: A True American Great

The greatest actor of his generation has passed. A solitary Oscar award was not nearly enough.
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The greatest actor of his generation has passed. A solitary Oscar award was not nearly enough.

As I write this, I still can’t quite believe it. An actor of unparalleled class, no longer with us. 

There are some actors where, when you see their name attached to a film, you don’t need to know much else about it to form an opinion. On the negative end of that scale is Kevin James, and on the complete opposite end, Philip Seymour Hoffman, a towering actor of unparalleled ability, now sadly gone four years shy of his 50th birthday.

Hoffman was a character actor in the truest sense of the word. Every time he appeared on screen he filled the scene with energy and vivacity, he knew what each character needed, when to turn it up and when to dial it down. Arguably his most underrated role is as Brandt in The Big Lebowski – sure, Jeff Bridges and John Goodman take most of the plaudits in that film, but Hoffman not only displays incredible comic timing, he also pitches that character so brilliantly, halfway meek and put-upon, halfway snobbish and impatient. When he’s showing The Dude The Big Lebowski’s wall of achievements there is a moment where, for a split second, he repeats a line of dialogue – it is so subtle and adds little to the scene, but adds everything to his character. We immediately know this is a man who has lived with a need to get things right. That line reveals an attention to detail that is lacking in many actors.

People will likely look back on his work with Paul Thomas Anderson as some of his finest roles. Magnolia, a bloated film on repeat watch, comes alive when he is on screen. The Master, a towering achievement, shows him as charming and lascivious by the same score. Boogie Nights, shy and self deprecating. And let’s not forget Punch Drunk Love, Anderson’s most fully realised film in which Hoffman really shines as the villainous Mattress Man.

I think one of the signs of a truly great actor are when they’re wheeled in as supporting parts in star vehicles to lend a sense of gravitas, a sense of authority to a picture. I think of Mission Impossible III, The Hunger Games series, or even Along Came Polly, in which some of the best scenes are with Hoffman playing basketball against comedic lead Ben Stiller.

But if there’s one film I’d implore people to watch if they want to pay tribute to Hoffman, it’s Synechdoche, New York. A sprawling, challenging, thought provoking film that tries to trip you over as many times as it tries to carry you through, but is so rewarding, largely down to Hoffman in the lead role – he’s a complete tragedy of a man in that film, desperate, pathetic, blighted by his own ambition, trapped in a nightmarish world of his own making by the end. I remember coming out of that film exhausted, and I bet he must have felt the same way, the sheer scope of the story, the colossal weight of his performance. Few actors could have dealt with that film in the way that he did, certainly nobody alive today.

I’m looking down Hoffman’s IMDb list to see if I’ve missed out anything and I now realise I haven’t even mentioned the film that won him his Oscar – Capote. One Academy Award doesn’t even begin to do justice to the kind of actor he was.

Philip Seymour Hoffman will be eulogised when the BAFTAs and Academy Awards come round, applauded by his contemporaries and mourned by those who knew him best, who worked with him, whose works were made better for him. As for us, all we can do is watch his movies, which will endure for so long. As well as everything mentioned already, there’s The Talented Mr Ripley, Mary & Max, Almost Famous, Happiness, Cold Mountain, Doubt, Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, The Ides of March, Moneyball. That’s a lot of great movies for one man – I’m devastated there won’t be any more.

RIP Philip Seymour Hoffman. July 23 1967 – February 2 2014.