Philip Seymour Hoffman was an unlikely candidate for a great actor. He had soft features and could be described as “schlubby,” totally unlike Humphrey Bogart or Clint Eastwood, who arrest the eyes of viewers with thin bodies and sharp faces. Yet, somehow, Hoffman was one of the greats, commanding the screen in every movie he was in. He was one of the most talented performers we had the fortune of seeing in the movies, and he died all too early from an apparent heroin overdose on Sunday at the age of 46.
He was prolific in his career of less than 25 years, with over 60 screen credits, not to mention his work in theater, which garnered him three Tony awards. He won the Academy Award for best actor for “Capote” in 2006 and was nominated as a supporting actor three other times. And aside from those industry awards, he’s won dozens of jury and critics’ awards, from the Volpi Cup at the Venice Film Festival to the National Society of Film Critics for best actor.
His greatest performance was in “Synecdoche, New York” (2008). In writer-director Charlie Kaufman’s masterpiece, Hoffman plays theater director Caden Cotard, who wins a MacArthur Fellowship and uses it to finance an art piece. He buys out an enormous warehouse and in it recreates a city, where actors live the lives he writes. The place evolves into nothing less than a moving metaphor for reality, a cathedral of quotidian life that Cotard uses to try to figure out his own life and past. Unsure how to complete the project, Hoffman keeps it going for over two decades. The movie’s thesis is that life is too big and messy to find meaning in, so the best way to give meaning to our lives is to create it ourselves, though even that is temporary and will become lost over time. Hoffman, however, manages to make Cotard a character who will endure in our minds long after watching the film instead of someone who gets lost in the movie’s complicated structure.
Much has been written in the past couple of days about Hoffman’s penchant for self-loathers, his tendency to play unhappy characters and make them comical or empathetic onscreen. Scotty in “Boogie Nights” (1997), his breakout role, and Dean Trumbell in “Punch-Drunk Love” (2002) were glimpses at characters for whom things probably hadn’t really gone as planned, for whom reality got in the way of ambition. They were people who thought they were doing okay, but didn’t have the lives they dreamed of and didn’t necessarily realize it. Trumbell seems to be a successful businessman, but he’s also a thin-skinned coward who owns a mattress store and runs a phone sex line for extra money. Scotty worked on pornographic film sets and seemed to be having a good time, but gets turned down after trying to pursue a heterosexual pornographic actor. That particular scene is one of Hoffman’s greatest. He depicts a person whom we all fear becoming, someone who tries his hardest to become someone with everything going for him, but who ends up someone who believes nothing will be okay. That “nothing will be okay” factor was one of Hoffman’s signature features. There was nothing heroic about his characters. Even if they were heroes, like his CIA agent in “Charlie Wilson’s War” (2007) who’s trying to bring peace to a battle-scarred Afghanistan, there’s no idealization or appreciation waiting for him at the end. Watching him, you got the impression that he couldn’t necessarily save the day no matter how hard he tried.
Hoffman’s fifth and last collaboration with Paul Thomas Anderson was in 2012’s “The Master.” He plays Lancaster Dodd, a charismatic, larger-than-life cult leader, like some kind of combination between Ron L. Hubbard and Orson Welles. Alongside Caden Cotard, it is one of the most complicated performances of his career. Dodd is as mysterious as he is powerful. His past seems to be a patchwork of lies and misdirection, making him a person built on vapors of information. The movie wouldn’t have worked at all with anyone else in the role.
There are so many other performances — Brandt, the Big Lebowski’s sycophant doppelganger in “The Big Lebowski,” avuncular Rolling Stone writer Lester Bangs in “Almost Famous,” a campaign manager who prizes loyalty above all else in “The Ides of March,” the voice of a claymation pen pal with Asperger’s syndrome in “Mary and Max,” just to name a few. He has a few more movies already filmed and yet to be released, but it seems so wrong that it’s only a few. There’s a line in “Synecdoche, New York” where Cotard discusses his project. He says, “There are nearly 13 million people in the world. None of those people is an extra. They’re all the leads of their own stories. They have to be given their due.” Philip Seymour Hoffman’s story was never given his due.