Sometimes when an actor dies, it’s easy to point to one particular performance and say, “She’ll always be remembered best for her role as ____.”
That won’t happen with Philip Seymour Hoffman, who was found dead Sunday of an apparent drug overdose in his New York apartment. There are simply too many highlights in the 46-year-old actor’s career, and I think it would be wrong to elevate his Oscar-winning performance for “Capote” to the top. It’s no secret that actors often don’t win awards for their best work, and I prefer many of Hoffman’s performances (several of which come from Paul Thomas Anderson films) to that one. Such as:
-- His eerie, menacing religious leader in “The Master”
-- One of the best-ever performances in an animated film as a socially anxious lonely heart in “Mary and Max”
-- His restless, spiraling theater director in “Synecdoche, New York”
-- His kind, determined nurse in “Magnolia”
-- Perfecting both cool and uncool as real-life rock critic Lester Bangs in “Almost Famous”
-- His delicious, memorable villain in “Mission: Impossible III”
Surely you have additions of your own; I could go on (“Happiness,” “25th Hour,” “The Big Lebowski” …). So I will:
I’ll never forget the first time I saw Hoffman on screen as an uneasy boom mic operator in “Boogie Nights”—I can still see Scotty (Hoffman) sitting in his car, telling himself, “I’m a [bleeping] idiot” after trying to kiss Dirk (Mark Wahlberg). I still remember how perfectly he oozed suspicion in “The Talented Mr. Ripley” as Freddie, who knows Tom (Matt Damon) can’t be trusted. This seems like an appropriate time to marvel again that when I interviewed Hoffman in 2010 about his directorial debut “Jack Goes Boating,” he told me that there was no performance he felt fully happy with.
“Every film I would watch, it would be a roller-coaster ride of emotions,” he said. “’That was bad!’ Or ‘That’s pretty good.’ Or ‘I remember that being good; now I don’t like it.’”
That self-criticism and humility (“I think talent,” he said, “and I’m not just saying this, is about putting the work in”) isn’t necessarily rare. Many people in Hollywood don’t want to watch themselves and only see flaws when they do. But Hoffman, who made one interesting choice after another, was always so eminently believable in a wide variety of roles and so easily respected as an actor who just seemed to get it that I wanted to reassure him that he’s the only one who sees the cracks. Not that he was too broken up about them. I remember being pleasantly surprised that in the interview setting he wasn’t as serious and closed-off as I thought he might be. “I think I ate about 10 billion hot dogs at a place [called] Portillo’s,” he said about the time he spent in Chicago while directing "The Long Red Road" at the Goodman Theatre. “Like A LOT. I ate there way more than I think I should have, but I couldn’t help it."
“I think I put ketchup on in hiding,” he added. “Back in my room or something.”
Hoffman had so many different ways to let movie fans understand—or make them wonder about—his characters' secrets. I’ll miss the dependability and the mystery.