Oliver Davis on the passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman…
Philip Seymour Hoffman (or ‘PSH’ as he was lovingly called in my house) was never a leading man in the conventional sense. A man of untucked shirts, his face was rough and slightly weathered, his portly torso giving him the appearance of a New York slob.
But Hoffman was no slouch. He was a tremendous actor, one who effortlessly commanded any scene in which he appeared. And that word, effortless, encapsulates his talents more than any other. Whether he be a socialite darling in Capote or a sweaty social outcast in Happiness, there was an incredible naturalism that seemed to come, well, naturally to him. Seeing him in a movie always made me feel the same way after it had ended: I wished he was in it more.
In Mission: Impossible III, Hoffman was the wonderfully over-the-top villain Owen Davian. He ate entire pieces of scenery for all his chewing. He strung out odd words in the middle of his sentences, and barely moved throughout the film. Effortless. Strangely, though, his most terrifying attribute was his breath. The way his nostrils sounded like a rhino’s, or like James Gandolfini’s (another actor who went too soon) as Tony Soprano. Even though the movie was 126 minutes long, I wished he was in it more.
For Paul Thomas Anderson’s recent The Master, Hoffman’s commanding screen presence was perfectly suited to cult leader Lancaster Dodd. Frequently throughout the film, Dodd would hold court with people hanging on his every word. His sudden flashes of anger, whenever confronted on his beliefs, were something else. His face would transform, all contorted and red, from the subdued, benign father figure he wanted to see himself as. Rather prophetically, The Master is a film about substance addiction. Dodd was an alcoholic, a double-edged demon he both relied on for inspiration and one that caused those sudden inflammations. And yet, even though he was a central character, I wished he was in it more.
In that same director’s Boogie Nights, way back in 1997, Hoffman was charming. His shirts were always too tight, exposing his rounded stomach, and his shorts unfortunately high. He’d hang around the pornography shoots like an excited fan, never really having an on-set role, yet finding something more, a sense of belonging. In this family, he was only ever a peripheral player. So once it was over, I wished he was in it more.
Synecdoche, New York had Hoffman play the lead, Caden Cotard, a theatre director replicating his own life on stage. The production spiraled out of control, with characters that would play him playing him playing him. The reality-reflecting mirrors stretched into infinity. And still, despite his starring role, I wished he was in it more.
Charlie Wilson’s War was Tom Hanks’ film – he played the titular role – but I only ever remember Hoffman’s Gust Avrakotos. We were shown his ‘Another Broken Window’ scene in my University screenwriting course, as an example of great writing. The words are great, sure, but Hoffman is electric. He’s a vibrating ball of energy, a rumble beneath a mountain. Watch his left hand whenever it finds itself on his hip in the clip below (beware: adult language). It’s shaking. “How was I?” he asks a colleague on the way back. Pretty damn good. So good, that upon leaving the film, I wished he was in it more.
It’s a terrible shame I won’t be able to say that Philip Seymour Hoffman is my favourite living actor anymore. I always took great delight in telling people why he was. His smile that often hinted at a deeper trouble, the way his eyes moistened and his eyebrows sloped off to the side when he was about to cry. And how whenever I saw him in a film – which is also now how I’ll always think of him in life – I wished he was in it more.