From drag queen to spy villain, rock critic to Catholic priest, Philip Seymour Hoffman has been it all.
On Sunday, Feb. 2, the world observed the passing of one of this generation’s greatest actors, a performer whose style is hard to peg down because it was constantly in flux, adapting to every role that came his way. These roles were a dark, diverse bunch, rife with hamartia and roiling insecurity. Throw all of Hoffman’s characters together in one room and you’d have a cross between a circus and a therapy session, a place where raging masculinity collides against effeminate poise and libido locks horns with with wounded pride. Indeed, Hoffman’s resume doubles as a rogue’s gallery of humanity’s bleakest, but his eagle-eyed tenacity allowed the actor to lift his characters up out of the sewers into the rafters.
Three roles immediately come to mind, if not for being Hoffman’s best performances (though they may very well be) then as proof of his immense talent and versatility: writer Truman Capote in the biopic “Capote”, for which Hoffman nabbed an Oscar; the estranged playwright in Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York”; and the vicious older brother in Sidney Lumet’s lesser known but devastating “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead”. Each role cannot be more different than the next, and yet each is so believable – no, irrefutable – that we cannot help but be mesmerized.
For most actors, appropriating Capote’s fluty voice would have sounded peculiar if not downright silly, but Hoffman speaks with such deliberateness that we are immediately sold. The entire performance is a feat of immaculate control and attention to detail. From dainty fingers dangling a cigarette to a dignified, almost stilted laugh, Hoffman sustains every inch of the character through the film’s two-hour runtime and never slips once. The role of Andy, on the other hand, required the exact opposite. In place of the openly gay writer’s delicate mannerisms, this Hoffman explodes with raw virility. It’s a performance steeped in vice and violent emotion, and the actor enters the abyss without hesitation. Hoffman, unafraid of the sleazy, devours the role with a staunch fearlessness matched today only by the likes of Christian Bale and Michael Fassbender.
Then there’s his performance as “Synecdoche, New York”’s Caden Cotard, a less extreme but no less virtuosic feat of acting. Whereas the first two characters try through their behavior to uphold a certain image – the hip, liberal pundit in Capote and the aggressive alpha male in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead – Caden is introduced as a man who doesn’t know how to define himself.
Trying to fathom his existence by constructing a stage play about his life, Caden becomes a meta-filmic point of identification for us – like him, we are both audience to and artists of the lives we lead. Appropriately, Hoffman pitches his performance somewhere between modest and messy, capturing the plight of another poor soul grappling with the mundane tragedies of life. We are meant to recognize ourselves in Caden, but Hoffman never slips into archetype – he maintains the character’s idiosyncrasies, and by doing so, makes him feel more real.
And that’s what Hoffman will be remembered for. He brought characters to life and broke them before our eyes, working with their strengths and weaknesses so intimately that the result was nothing less than real, viscerally real. Even in his supporting roles, Hoffman never compromised quality. He reminded us that, even despite having less screen time, these characters shouldn’t be any less credible than their counterparts in the limelight. Just look at Lester Bangs in Almost Famous, Brandt from The Big Lebowski, and even Owen Davian from Mission Impossible III. Even blockbuster baddies are given gravitas once reincarnated by Hoffman. Here was a man that cared about the art of acting and acting well, and about salvaging humanity from the broken pieces of people’s lives. Through his movies, he rescued us from the complacency of cheap entertainment and easy ways out, shedding light on the human condition at its edgiest, craziest, and most alive.
To a masterful actor, gone too soon but forever treasured: rest in peace. Thanks for showing us what great acting looks like.
Jeng is a member of the class of 2016.