Perhaps the greatest tribute to Philip Seymour Hoffman is that most everyone seemed to know who he was when the news of his death began to circulate on Sunday. Hoffman, 46, wasn't a Hollywood star like George Clooney or Brad Pitt, but took such a variety of roles and showed such range with his choices that there's a good chance he was in at least one movie that people remember.
I was with my mother when a friend sent me the news via text message. She didn't put the name to the face right away and I had difficulty thinking of a movie she might remember him from. Where do you begin with Hoffman and his career? Did he have a signature role or was he just the classic working actor, willing to try just about anything?
I figured Mom would remember Hoffman from Capote, since he won the Best Actor Academy Award for his portrayal of Truman Capote. I also mentioned The Master, in which he played a cult leader leading a religious movement strongly resembling Scientology. When I showed her a photo of Hoffman on my phone, she immediately remembered him as the priest in Doubt who may have had an inappropriate relationship with an altar boy. To me, that seemed random, but was it really?
As people learned of Hoffman's death and expressed their shock and sorrow over social media, it was fascinating to see how they remembered the actor. Some film critics and serious fans rolled their eyes when Hoffman's role in the most recent "Hunger Games" film was mentioned, but if that's the association they make, what's wrong with that? For The Outside Corner, I wrote about Hoffman's portrayal of Oakland A's manager Art Howe in Moneyball, as that's how a segment of baseball and sports movie fans might know him best.
Sure, Hoffman's career had far more depth than to be marginalized by one role. But not everyone sees every movie, especially every movie a particular actor is in.
The point is that Hoffman's body of work is so diverse — from the mainstream to the obscure — that it seems impossible to define him. Even those who write about film and theater for a living are having difficulty doing so. There have been plenty of posts and tributes online and throughout the film and pop culture blogosphere on Hoffman's best performances or his most memorable scenes. But in this case, the exercise feels particularly subjective. My favorite Hoffman performance or scene may not be the same as yours. It very likely isn't.
Yet I'll go through the process anyway and list a trio of Hoffman's moments that I consider most memorable. To diminish his work down to five scenes feels like a criminal act. He was so great in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead and The Savages. But he was great in all of his roles. If he ever took a role just for the paycheck, that never came across on screen. Most of you reading this will probably think I missed his best work or overlooked a hidden gem. And I surely did. These are the roles that immediately came to mind upon learning of Hoffman's death. It's far too short of a list.
I wonder if most writers and filmmakers (and musicians) remember Hoffman most for playing Lester Bangs in Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous. It was a small role, but an important one since the legendary rock journalist was so influential to the protagonist of the story. Many journalists and critics remember Bangs fondly because he was a counter-culture icon and championed bands that stood for something more than just the rock star lifestyle, that showed the courage of their convictions.
Bangs showed that same courage in his writing, a philosophy ("honest and unmerciful") he tries to pass along to young William Miller in this scene. Don't get caught up in hanging out with rock stars. Don't let them fool you into thinking they're your friends. Write the truth.
Hoffman is just so believable as Bangs, chewing as he talks and sharing advice that he thinks might get lost on a wide-eyed wannabe who thinks he wants to be a rock critic, but doesn't yet realize what that will entail. Writing about something perceived as cool puts you in the position of not being cool. You're chronicling and admiring, but not actually engaging in the life and scene being covered. Yet if you care about rock music and what it should mean, you'll hold the line against the phonies who just want the drugs, the girls and the fame.
Maybe Hoffman plays a similar character as CIA agent Gust Avrakotos in Charlie Wilson's War. Avrakotos has been in the field overseas for years, establishing relationships and devising long-term strategies. When that work is threatened by political agendas and career opportunists in the CIA offices, Avrakotos becomes unhinged. Glory hounds don't deserve to take credit for years of careful planning and dirty work. Like Bangs, Avrakotos is holding the line against phonies who just want to look good, rather than accomplish something important.
Hoffman is armed here with the excellent dialogue of Aaron Sorkin (as he was with Crowe's writing in Almost Famous), which certainly works in his favor. But it's one thing to say the lines. It's another to make them come to life on screen and give them credibility. Hoffman doesn't convey the sleek, shadowy archetype we might have of a CIA agent. He's just a guy doing significant work that doesn't want to be pushed aside or marginalized. And he's important enough that he can talk to his boss like this, which all of us have likely wanted to do.
Maybe the role that put Hoffman on many fans and critics' radar was Scotty in Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights. Again, Hoffman is far from the star of this movie. He's one of a deep cast of characters surrounding Mark Wahlberg's Dirk Diggler, yet has a key moment in the film. Scotty is a closeted, repressed gay man working as a boom operator for the porn films Diggler stars in. He's a chubby, shy guy wearing ill-fitting clothes surrounded by gorgeous people acting out every carnal impulse in front of the camera.
Whether it's because he's surrounded by sex and free expression, or he legitimately misinterprets signals from the man who's basically seduced everyone who encounters him, Scotty tries to make a move on Diggler. He thinks Diggler will be impressed by the Corvette he just bought and seizes what he sees as an opportunity to act on his feelings. Unfortunately, Diggler doesn't feel the same way and is freaked out by his friend kissing him. Scotty then realizes he's made a huge mistake, alienated someone he idolizes and understands that he'll never be accepted among these people.
It's a tough scene to watch. The interaction between Scotty and Diggler has become so uncomfortable, perhaps irrevocably so. But Scotty is so exposed and vulnerable by the end of it, when he's in his car alone, crying. He's calling himself an idiot for what he's done and how badly he misjudged the situation. In that moment, you can feel what Scotty has lost and how lonely he truly feels. It represents the beginning of the end for everyone in the story. Things are changing. The good times aren't going to last.
Playing the villain in Mission: Impossible III is a role that you might think is beneath an actor of Hoffman's accomplishments. (Name the villain in any of the other three Mission: Impossible movies. If Dougray Scott is memorable from the second film, it's because that role cost him the chance to play Wolverine in X-Men.)
Yet Hoffman's Owen Davian isn't just play a megalomanical, mustache-twisting foe for Tom Cruise's super-agent, Ethan Hunt. He's a genuinely fearsome adversary, one who said he killed one Hunt's agents for fun. When he's captured, Davian doesn't talk about his plans for world domination. He taunts Hunt and gets into his head, saying that he's going to find Hunt's wife and girlfriend and hurt her. Even though Davian has been captured, he knows Hunt's threats are empty and he knows he'll get away.
Why movies like this don't cast actors like Hoffman as villains more often is baffling. Of course, few of them are written as well as J.J. Abrams wrote Davian. But once again, those words still have to be brought to life. And Hoffman made Davian ooze evil, with no remorse for his fellow human beings.
There's one last scene I want to include here, and it's not necessarily an example of Hoffman's acting talent or his ability to elevate a supporting role into something significant. It just makes me laugh.
I'd forgotten Hoffman was in The Big Lebowski until rewatching it a couple of years ago. There's no reason to remember Hoffman being in it, since his role as Lebowski's personal assistant Brandt isn't a big one. But with The Big Lebowski being such a cult hit, Hoffman always enjoyed a certain level of fame because of it. I just remember Brandt's laugh after something totally inappropriate has happened. That's marvelous!
I often think that we as a culture make too much about celebrity deaths. We didn't know these people. Doesn't it seem a bit weird to mourn the passing of someone you never actually met?
Of course, if you've watched Hoffman's many movies, you've given a part of your life over to him. You've given his performances your time. And if you're a fan of the work he's done, it seems entirely appropriate to feel a loss. Any movie with Hoffman in it was better because of his presence. (Yes, even as Ben Stiller's buddy in Along Came Polly.)
We have lost something. We'll always have the roles Hoffman has already played, but we've lost what he could've done in the future. And at 46 years old, with his involvement in so many film, TV and theater productions, there was so much more to come. Philip Seymour Hoffman will truly be missed.