Appreciation: Philip Seymour Hoffman, an actor’s actor who became a movie star

Published: Monday, Feb. 3, 2014 - 12:00 am
Last Modified: Friday, Feb. 7, 2014 - 8:02 pm

An actor’s actor who became a movie star, Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman (“Capote”) was emblematic of the 1990s independent filmmaking revolution that brought daring, modestly budgeted films to the mainstream.

Hoffman, 46, who was found dead Sunday today in his New York City home, was a formally trained stage actor who received his Hollywood break with a small role as a prep school student in the 1992 Al Pacino film “Scent of a Woman. ”

But he did not click with audiences until 1997, when he donned an ill-fitting tank top to play a gay, lovesick porn-industry worker in “ Boogie Nights. ” The film was directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, Hoffman’s frequent collaborator.

Hoffman’s fair skin, physical awkwardness and show of vulnerability helped soften the rough setting of “Boogie Nights.” Hoffman’s next role of note was as a cubicle-dwelling, heavy-breathing obscene phone caller in Todd Solondz’s controversial 1998 film “Happiness. ”

Hoffman was willing to go to uncomfortable places. It was the right time for such an attitude.

Hoffman rose in the movie industry as the Sundance Film Festival became as important an indicator as Hollywood’s fall slate of films in determining Academy Awards races.

Emboldened by the success of 1994’s “Pulp Fiction,” indie filmmakers such as Anderson, Solondz and the Coen brothers (Hoffman also appeared in 1998’s “The Big Lebowski”) were pushing storytelling boundaries and redefining what it meant to be a movie star by spotlighting actors with nontraditional looks such as Hoffman, Steve Buscemi and William H. Macy.

Hoffman’s role as an empathic nurse in Anderson’s sprawling 1999 Los Angeles opus “Magnolia” further engendered respect for his work, and increased his Hollywood profile.

He was marvelous as the eccentric real-life rock critic Lester Bangs in “Almost Famous" in 2000. In 2004, he showed he could go beyond playing conflicted men in his purely comedic role as Ben Stiller’s crass best friend in “Along Came Polly. ”

Yet he always seemed more comfortable at playing inner turmoil – men who either held secrets or merely suggested they held secrets to keep you intrigued. Those sly characters included gameskeeper Plutarch Heavensbee in "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" last year and real-life author Truman Capote in “Capote” in 2005.

The burly Hoffman physically transformed himself to play the tiny “In Cold Blood” author. His Capote was sneaky, charming, curious, unfulfilled and unsettling as the film explored Capote’s relationship to convicted killer Perry Smith, who was sentenced to death for the murders of a Kansas family.

Hoffman’s greatest competition for that year’s best-actor Oscar – in the most interesting Oscar acting race of the past 20 years – was Heath Ledger for “Brokeback Mountain.” Ledger also died prematurely, which makes “Capote” and that year in film even more haunting.

Hoffman actually was better in 2012’s “The Master” than he was in “Capote.” Again working for Anderson, Hoffman infused his somewhat L. Ron Hubbard-esque spiritual-leader character with hubris and ambition but also great compassion and a seeming desire to elevate others.

This role played on Hoffman’s secret-keeping quality, but took it further. His character, Lancaster Dodd, believed he possessed the secrets to life and faith. He did not tease others with suggestions of that knowledge but shared his essential secrets with his flock – all while continuing to hide his ample personal appetites for sex and alcohol.

Hoffman’s quasi-religious leader is both commanding and deluded, a likely fraud who does not know he is a fraud. It’s a performance more towering in its nuance than in its more bombastic qualities.

Hoffman did not win another Oscar for “The Master” (though he was nominated in the supporting category). But it should be considered his signature performance. It went to uncomfortable personal places but also far beyond them, to that universal desire to seek comfort from something larger than ourselves.

It’s a performance that only could be accomplished by a veteran actor who was a master of his craft.

Read more articles by Carla Meyer

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