It's not the anniversary of his birth, or even his death, and he didn't pass away recently. But more and more lately, I find myself missing Philip Seymour Hoffman, the Oscar-winning actor who finally lost his long battle against drug addiction on February 2, 2014. These days, of course, I miss everyone – even people, like Hoffman, who I only saw on-screen. I've been feeling his absence more acutely than usual, though, over the past several weeks, and for reasons that are only partly professional.
I should probably state up front, for anyone curious or concerned, that this isn't a veiled cry for help. I'm not writing this as someone severely depressed or addicted to heroin and prescription medications. In truth, I'd been planning to write a piece on Hoffman movies for a while now, and might've composed one earlier had a friend not momentarily shied me away from the plan saying that an article on a different topic would surely “get more eyeballs.” (For what it's worth, I have no doubt he was right.) The idea did, after all, make sense for my recent series on previously un-reviewed home-viewing options, given that films I'd considered covering included The Big Lebowski, Boogie Nights, Happiness, Magnolia, and The Talented Mr. Ripley. Guess what, or rather who, they all have in common.
Yet my pandemic-era fascination with Hoffman and his roles stems, I think, from somewhere deeper, and speaks to the actor's singular screen presence, no matter the part, over the course of more than 50 feature films released through 2015. Hoffman played winners and losers. (Lots and lots and lots of losers.) He played the saintly and the vile. He played people you'd want as your best friend and people you'd cross the street to avoid.
He never judged them, though. He just was them. And he demanded that they be seen.
If your social-media feeds are anything like mine, you've likely noticed a greater-than-usual number of posts by friends under self-quarantine sharing images of their designer face masks, their ever-growing hair, their successes in baking new kinds of bread. (Where did they find all that flour?!) I get the increased activity: Isolation leads to you feeling invisible, and most of us are aching for ways to feel visible again.
Because he wasn't movie-star handsome, Hoffman wound up playing loads of invisible people. Yet the chief reason I adored his work, and why it's so satisfying to return to now, is that in giving such rich interior life to eccentric, marginal, and even grotesque figures, he demanded that we look – really look – at those whom we might otherwise not have thought twice about … and that includes ourselves. He made the invisible visible, and in doing so, Hoffman made us feel less alone.
I can still remember the first time I saw him in a movie. It was January of 1993, and a snowstorm had just hit, and a friend and I made the mildly challenging trek from Rock Island to Milan to catch the new Al Pacino drama Scent of a Woman. The film was getting buzz as the picture that would finally net Al his long-overdue Academy Award, and it was mostly sentimental malarkey, and it's really only remembered now as the title that introduced “HOO-ah!!!” to the performer's lexicon. But long before Pacino's blind, alcoholic, suicidal war veteran (how could he not win the Oscar?!) started tangoing and Chris O'Donnell's ethical weakling started crying and Al began his climactic, abrasive “I'm gonna take a FLAMETHROWER to this place!!!” monologue, another actor in a relatively minor role captured our attention. He was young, almost distractingly blond, pink-faced, kind of chubby … and you could not, for the life of you, take your eyes off him.
It was, of course, Hoffman, and in his role as the perfectly named prep-school douche-bag George Willis Jr., the guy was riveting. He didn't look anything like the stereotypical golden child he was portraying – more like that kid's ne'er-do-well cousin, the one the family doesn't talk about at Thanksgiving. Hoffman, though, flooded his few scenes with grinning, one-percenter privilege and noxious entitlement (I still relish the way he schooled O'Donnell in the correct pronunciation of “Gstaad”), and when Pacino's braying remarks finally put this schmuck in his place, you couldn't help but cheer. You also, however, felt just a li-i-ittle bad for the conceited creep. He may not have physically resembled anyone's idea of a “George Willis Jr.,” but by God, that's who Hoffman became, making no apologies for the character's elitism or cruelty or foolishness. These qualities were merely part of George's genetic makeup – they were part of who he was – so what was there to apologize for? I've rarely been one to sit through a movie's closing credits, especially when there's no remote possibility of a post-credits kicker. Yet my friend and I stayed through Scent of a Woman's … or rather, stayed just long enough to satisfy our curiosity about that amazing kid who played George Willis Jr. And that's when we logged the name: “Philip S. Hoffman.”
“Seymour” officially replaced the “S.” with Hoffman's brief role in 1994's When a Man Loves a Woman, a TV-movie-ish tearjerker in which Meg Ryan tries to hide her alcoholism from hubby Andy Garcia. All told, the movie isn't bad, and is actually a terrific showcase for the leading couple's kids played by Tina Majorino and a very young Mae Whitman. But as with Scent of a Woman, Hoffman found a way to make himself memorable, playing Ryan's friend from rehab who, even in just a couple minutes of screen time, clearly had more personality – and understood the self-effacing embarrassment of addiction better – than anyone else in the film. Later that year, in Nobody's Fool, Hoffman played a cop who gets punched in the face by Paul Newman (which was probably still less trying than being stuck in rehab with Meg Ryan). And then, after another notable appearance in Paul Thomas Anderson's debut Hard Eight – the first of Hoffman's five collaborations with the writer/director – Hoffman found himself in his first massive hit, chasing tornadoes alongside Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton in 1996's Twister. And here's where I have to deliver a truly humiliating confession, because in Twister, I had to ask myself what is now a heretical question: Was Philip Seymour Hoffman, in actuality, a terrible actor?
Viewed now, of course, Hoffman is giving the disaster blockbuster precisely what it requires: a shot of over-the-top adrenaline to counteract the cookie-cutter blandness of Hunt, Paxton, Cary Elwes, and their fellow storm chasers. At the time, though, Hoffman and his almost cartoonishly exuberant delight were just too much for me – certainly no one could be having this much fun routinely putting his life on the line! But Hoffman's Dustin Davis sure was, and it took several viewings to realize that what I had misinterpreted as off-putting hamminess was, in truth, deeply truthful: A person probably had to be a little insane, and able to embrace his insanity, to follow a career path as dangerous as Dustin's. The guy cackles with excitement over impending destruction and potential death not because the actor is showing off, but because he's simply showing, presenting the physical and emotional embodiment of Dustin's firecracker synapses. In 1996, I found it hard to even look at Hoffman in Twister. In retrospect, however, who would even think of looking away?
Like most Hoffman fanatics, I was completely, eternally in the tank for him starting with Anderson's 1997 Boogie Nights – and there, as in many of his films, we were right to want to look away. Portraying Scotty J., the closeted gay production assistant to Burt Reynolds' porno rep company, Hoffman was like the adult equivalent of every grade-school weirdo you and your friends either hid from or teased at recess: the one who breathed through his mouth and always seemed to have a runny nose; the one who ate paste. But when this needy, nasal nerd was rebuffed for kissing Mark Wahlberg (right after Scotty proudly showed off his new sports car that was an exact replica of Marky Mark's!) and broke down in tears behind his steering wheel, you instantly felt ashamed for all the times you made fun of that poor, sad kid from school. His repeated, wailing refrain of “I'm a f---ing idiot, I'm a f---ing idiot … !” was devastating, yet you weren't affected solely because of what it meant for Scotty. Hoffman's sobs of self-loathing and shame were your sobs, too, reminding you of every time you made the mistake of following your heart when you knew, deep down, that your feelings wouldn't be reciprocated. Brilliant though the performance is, Hoffman's portrayal is hard to watch for the same reason that, after a particularly uncomfortable fight or moment of realization, you don't want to look in the mirror. Hoffman didn't merely show us who Scotty J. was; he showed us who we could be.
Hoffman was similarly discomforting, but even more so, in 1998's Happiness, writer/director Todd Solondz's phenomenally unpleasant yet senselessly entertaining ode to misery that finds the actor playing a desperately lonely obscene-phone-caller and chronic masturbator. (And he's not even the worst-behaved character in the movie.) It's not fun, in any traditional sense, to watch Hoffman's sex offender Allen verbalize his most repellant fantasies and promptly stick postcards on the wall to mark his aural conquests, and you certainly don't want to know what he uses for glue. Yet even a figure this revolting, through Hoffman's empathetic interpretation and willingness to show the worst sides of himself, is a three-dimensional human being as opposed to a mere monster. And when Allen and Camryn Manheim's sad sack Kristina forge a connection late in the film – one scored, perversely, to Air Supply's “All Out of Love” – damned if this decidedly unromantic pairing has become almost blissfully sweet, suggesting that maybe there truly is someone for everyone. If Allen can find happiness, even for a moment, there's hope for us all.
Happiness was just the tip of Hoffman's 1998 cinematic iceberg, as the actor also appeared in Montana and Next Stop Wonderland, which I didn't see, and Patch Adams, which I only wish I didn't. But his best-remembered role that year, it should go without saying, was the uncomfortable, obsequious Brandt in the Coen brothers' The Big Lebowski, a caricature of well-practiced unctuousness so astute and hilarious that he would've completely walked off with the picture if not for Jeff Bridges, and John Goodman, and Julianne Moore, and Steve Buscemi, and Sam Elliott, and … . Well, you know. It's a testament to both the Coens' writing and Hoffman's uncanny knack for finding his characters' humanity that you barely notice the gradual metamorphosis of Brandt from priggish stereotype to flesh-and-blood Jeff Lebowski ally in which even his phraseology softens. (“Her life is in your hands, Dude.”) And this iconic knockout was followed by a trio of 1999 films that firmly established Hoffman as a character-actor star: Flawless, Magnolia, and The Talented Mr. Ripley.
Of these, Flawless is easily the most problematic: an action comedy-drama in which gruff, homophobic NYPD officer Walter Koontz (inevitably played by Robert De Niro) suffers a stroke, and is forced to accept consequent vocal-training aid from one his building's numerous drag queens: a wannabe starlet named Rusty. This is pure 1990s-Hollywood high-concept kitsch: Look at how easily we could all mend our ideological divides if only our relationships were as cautiously open and mildly insulting as Walter's and Rusty's! But given only a morsel of a characterization, Hoffman turns his role into a full meal (and earned his first Screen Actors Guild Award citation for his efforts). Never one to judge or pander, Hoffman simply accepts Rusty in all his gesticulating, caftan-wearing glory, and his ebullience of spirit and “This is who I am, so deal with it” bravado loosens up De Niro's dyspeptic act, resulting in a memorable odd-couple pairing that would be more memorable still if the movie they were in weren't such a formulaic load of b.s. Much as I dislike the movie, however, I'll readily concede to having watched it more than once just for Hoffman, with touching and hysterical honesty, recounting Rusty's performance credits: “I was Prince Chulalongkorn in The King & I … but I was miscast ... then I was the Lion in The Wizard of Oz … where I was definitely miscast … .” On that score, Rusty is probably right. The Cowardly Lion needed courage. Hoffman demonstrates plenty.
In the published shooting script for Magnolia, Paul Thomas Anderson explains Hoffman's casting as Phil Parma, the devoted caregiver to Jason Robards' cancer-stricken elder: “I wrote it for Phil, and it is Phil. The emotions Phil Parma goes to – this nurse who cries way too much – that's just the way I could see Phil Hoffman reacting to those moments in real life.” And that's what Hoffman gives us in what may be the least “actor-y,” most emotionally naked portrayal of his movie career. Magnolia's sprawling, character-driven narrative means that the performer shares the film's three hours with more than a dozen other significant figures and starry presences. Yet part of Magnolia's genius is that it feels like we're getting a feature-length film for nearly every single one of them, and Hoffman's feature is a lovely, heartbreaking tragicomedy about a kind, responsible, level-headed man who finds himself acting in a ridiculous movie fiction in which an average Joe has to convince far loftier powers-that-be that he and Robards are deserving of an audience with Tom Cruise. (And in true Hollywood fashion, they're allowed one.) Cruise got the Oscar nomination and Julianne Moore and William H. Macy and others get the epic meltdowns. But Hoffman's Phil is like goodness and decency personified, and this 1999 turn is right up there with Capote and The Master in showcasing the man's remarkable ability to make listening inherently dramatic, whether he's silently replying to Moore's tirades (and slaps) or desperately planning new tactics to a friendly yet not-comprehending entity on the other end of the phone. Like all strong actors, Hoffman knows that the art lies not in what you give, but what you give back.
Which brings us to The Talented Mr. Ripley, which boasts what is not only, probably, my all-time-favorite Hoffman supporting performance, but which I almost always forget he's in right up until the moment his character is introduced. (This happens to me all the time with Moneyball, too.) In Anthony Minghella's fiendishly enjoyable Patricia Highsmith adaptation, Hoffman, as Freddie Miles, is basically playing an older, more drunken version of George Willis Jr.: a bored, wealthy, laze-about cad whose shit might stink, but whose nose is too high in the air to smell it.
I'm not one of those viewers who necessarily believes that less is more when it comes to Hoffman. But even though he's granted only a handful of scenes, Freddie is unforgettable: so high on his own blasé coolness, and so full of contempt for Matt Damon's poser Tom Ripley, that you're just aching for Freddie to decimate the usurper's ruse for its unearned privilege – for Tom's audacity in believing he could ever be someone like Freddie. He gets to, memorably, when Freddie notices Tom spying on Jude Law's and Gwyneth Paltrow's lovemaking on a boat and casually inquires, “Hey, Tommy – how's the peeping?” (He keeps repeating the question, and Tom's name, until the blood vessels on Damon's forehead practically pop.) Because Tom is the villain we're meant to root for, things don't turn out so well for Freddie, and he exits the film earlier than you may want him to. But Hoffman's presence lingers. Here, he's that asshole who knows your worst faults, and is there to remind you of them, even when he's not around. This time, Hoffman isn't holding up a mirror; he is the mirror.
After Magnolia and The Talented Mr. Ripley, both released in December of 1999, Hoffman was officially A Name if not quite yet A Star, and fans of his 21st-century work know what happened next, and until his passing. His proudly uncool Lester Bangs in Almost Famous. The buzzy 2002 trio of Red Dragon (and a nasty demise at the hands of Hannibal Lecter), Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love, and Spike Lee's 25th Hour. An Oscar for Capote. Stealing a film out from under Tom Cruise – again! – in Mission: Impossible III. Additional Oscar nods for Charlie Wilson's War and Doubt, giving a performance in the latter so cagey that viewers still don't know whether his accused priest was a pedophile. Matching wits, in 2011, with Brad Pitt in Moneyball and Ryan Gosling in The Ides of March. His final Academy Award recognition for Anderson's The Master, proving that sometimes someone can out-act Joaquin Phoenix. The final two parts of The Hunger Games, the latter a posthumous portrayal. All this plus numerous other studio and independent pictures; an Emmy nod for the mini-series Empire Falls (in which he co-starred with a Paul Newman who didn't punch him); three Tony nominations for his only three Broadway productions … .
So yeah: I miss him. I still miss him. But like other friends these days, Hoffman can still be seen on screens, even if he's only saying things he already said before. That'll have to do – and despite the inherent sadness of it, that's still a pleasure. After making particularly insinuating remarks about a mutual friend's disappearance, Tom asks, “Is there something you want to say, Freddie?” Freddie's reply: “I think I'm saying it.” Hoffman was always saying it. And we listened. And we saw.