To look back on Philip Seymour Hoffman’s highly variegated, tragically short career is to see before you a gallery of characters who could’ve easily been camera-hugging caricatures. A technician working on a porn-star flick, a flamboyantly gay, world-famous writer, the leader of a creepy religious cult””these are roles that practically beg the performer to go unthinkingly for the big moments, to turn every scene into a de facto audition that takes them one step closer to delivering a memorable acceptance speech.
But Hoffman never took the bait. His greatest skill as an actor was his seriously impressive ability to take big, buoyant and often bullying personas and show you the small, wounded core that made them who they really were. He never played a similar part twice, yet all the people he inhabited, from Phil Parma to Plutarch Heavensbee, had both a booming, surging, memorably specific kind of self-confidence and a singularly haunting mixture of loneliness and mania. Hoffman’s great skill was to give us moments where characters disclosed the latter while intending to convey the former.
One memorable example of this occurs in the final moments of “The Master.” As he says goodbye to his old friend and favorite protégé Freddie Quell, cult leader Lancaster Dodd serenades the young man with an old jazz tune. At first, this seems like a quirky gesture of benevolence, but as Hoffman’s delivery gets more clipped and his facial muscles grow tense, we, along with Freddie, watch this initially sweet goodbye devolve into a bitter, pathetic final plea.
But no film conveyed Hoffman’s singular talent for showing us the smallness of seemingly great men quite like “Synedoche, New York.” Indeed, the entire movie is centered on this paradox. As theatre director Caden Cotard attempts to turn a massive abandoned warehouse into a city-sized performance space, his attempt to project an aura of visionary authority only reveals more and more about his own insecurities.
This was a project tailor-made for Hoffman’s capabilities, and in it he gave his best performance, perhaps the most gutsy, exposed work done by any actor on the stage or screen in this young and promising century. I do not know a single person who has seen it without being bowled over by Hoffman’s emotional nakedness, without feeling that he has tapped into their own secret affections and fears.
How did Hoffman acquire these uncanny abilities? For one thing, he shaped them with director Paul Thomas Anderson, his most frequent collaborator. Over the course of five films and three decades, these men served as one another’s muses, each pushing the other to new levels of technical expertise and imaginative risk-taking. It also did not hurt that Hoffman was, like Daniel Day-Lewis, a highly methodical actor who lived in and with his character during a movie shoot.
But most of all, what made Hoffman one of the greatest actors of his generation was talent, that irreducibly complex, eternally mysterious, continually astonishing gift that flows through human beings but comes from somewhere else. If only that boundless yalent had brought him the same joy and solace it brought us.