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13 Ways of Looking at Philip Seymour Hoffman

Slide 1: Introduction

Without question, Philip Seymour Hoffman rates as one of America’s finest actors. His work as a character actor in some ways has completely redefined that often maligned category. Unlike many actors who use costume and make up to transform themselves into other people, Hoffman appears fairly similar from role to role. And while some actors who gain or drop 50 pounds from role to role, Hoffman’s body––slightly over-weight, sometimes slovenly and he readily admits not the most attractive––rarely changes. Hoffman’s transformations are purely internal, a refocusing of psychic energy on his malleable bulk to create something new with each film. Without barely of ounce of weight shed, or the plucking of single eyebrow, Hoffman shifts our perspective, turning the loser of his earlier films to the fierce alpha male of recent movies.

Slide 2: The Pathetic Loser (Boogie Nights)

Philip Seymour Hoffman had made more than 15 films before landing the role of Scotty J. in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights. But it was this role as the shy, clumsy puppy in love with the film’s alpha male that caught the public’s and critics’ attention. Unlike many actors, who might try to make a role more attractive in order to get noticed, Hoffman went the other way. He fully embraced the marginality of his character. He amplified everything that was pathetic about Scotty to reveal a vulnerable, albeit creepy, human being. Hoffman said of his performance, “That's hard for me to watch, because it's me saying, 'I know about him. And now you know I know.' It's very awkward. But playing it any other way would be compromising…It had to be all or nothing of myself as attractive." And he went for broke with nothing.

Slide 3: The Perv (Happiness)

In an ensemble cast of detestable characters, Hoffman found a way to stand out as arguably the most repellent. In Todd Solondz’ razor-wire social satire, Hoffman plays Allen, a computer geek so repressed that he derives most of his sexual pleasure from making obscene, abusive phone calls anonymously. As the creepy dude from next door, Hoffman makes you first detest him, and then ultimately empathize with his loneliness. In Slate.com, David Edelstein wrote, “Hoffman, as one of the two fat neighbors, is encased in his flab like a tortured prisoner of war. His doleful low tones and operatic mouth-breathing give even his vilest lines a dopey sweetness.”

Slide 4: The Officious Extra (The Big Lebowski)

Just as Hoffman could be slovenly and unkempt, so too could he play prissily neat. In the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski, Hoffman plays a minor, but in no way forgettable, role, as the Big Lebowski’s unctuous aide Brandt, who dismisses the Dude with such persnickety German precision it makes you cringe. But Hoffman’s real genius is not to stand apart, but to fill out the Coen comic caravan. In Variety, Todd McCarthy marked how they all worked together: “As the blustery Walter, Goodman is vastly entertaining, Moore is bracingly assertive in a nice change of pace role, and Philip Seymour Hoffman milks surplus laughs out of his part as Lebowski's officious assistant.”

Slide 5: The Ringmaster (The Talented Mr. Ripley)

In Anthony Minghella’s adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, Hoffman has shed his loser garb to don sunglasses and a polo shirt as the cruel ringmaster of a group of wealthy Americans living in Italy. As Freddie Miles (in a role the New York Times’ Janet Maslin dubbed “scene-stealingly wonderful”), Hoffman embodies the arrogance and righteousness of the American aristocracy. In the San Francisco Chronicle, Bob Graham observed that, “his indolent drawl outdoes even William F. Buckley's. In Hoffman's performance, Freddie is so repellent that it wouldn't be surprising if some of his so-called friends would be happy to see him dead. Freddie is not only loathsome, he's too smart for his own good.”

Slide 6: The Insider's Outsider (Almost Famous)

If Hoffman began his career as a loser, he soon turned that sense of marginality into a choice rather than a punishment. In Almost Famous, Hoffman plays the cynically idealistic real-life music journalist Lester Bangs who wises up the film’s hero William Miller (Patrick Fugit) on the reality of the rock scene. It’s a fine line to play both jaded and passionate, angry and adoring, at the same time, but Hoffman pulls it off so poetically that he reveals how those contradictions are simply different sides of the same coin. Kenneth Turan wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Superbly played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, more and more the most gifted and inspired character actor working in film, what could have been the clichéd portrait of an older mentor who speaks the straight truth blossoms into a marvelous personality.”

Slide 7: The Designated Mourner (Love Liza)

In Love Liza, Hoffman, so often a side character, took on the lead in this story of a man coping with his wife’s unexpected suicide. The script was written by his brother, Gordy Hoffman. But Philip Seymour Hoffman makes the character of Joel all his own. As he wanders through his grief in ways that are simultaneously somber and slapstick, Hoffman creates a singular character, sideswiped by life, but yearning to find a way to the other side. And while Hoffman may not be a typical leading man, his emotional struggle feels painfully universal. David Sterrit wrote in the Christian Science Monitor that “Hoffman's acting is poignant and compassionate, etching a profoundly sad character with no trace of compromise.”

Slide 8: The Sincere Dandy (Capote)

Based on his shaggy dog roles up to that point, the idea of casting the sloppy heterosexual Philip Seymour Hoffman as the dapper gay prose dandy Truman Capote (for the film Capote) must have seemed a bit far-fetched at the time. But Hoffman performed one of the great magic acts of modern cinema, emerging from his past roles in a complete—and completely believable––transformation. And he was duly rewarded with an Academy Award for his efforts. Hoffman’s genius was to capture a man at once always performing and perpetually raw, the dandy and naïve as one. In his rave Variety review, David Rooney explains, “Hoffman's Capote is Southern flamboyance taken to baroque extremes, yet at all times vulnerable and real.”

Slide 9: The Banality of Evil (Mission: Impossible III)

Philip Seymour Hoffman had primarily worked in independent film, a medium often more fitting for his sizable talent. But in taking the role of arch enemy arms dealer Owen Davian in J.J. Abrams’ Mission: Impossible III, Hoffman proved he could imbue an otherwise cartoon character with something new. In his review for Entertainment Weekly, Owen Gleiberman focuses in on Hoffman’s role: “There's nothing old-fashioned, however, about Philip Seymour Hoffman's performance. Most great actors, when handed the role of a blockbuster villain, will ham it up with style, but Hoffman makes Davian a grubby banal monster.” In being so ordinary, so banal in his evil, Hoffman makes the arch enemy role even more frightening. Far from the preening mastermind of Austin Powers’ Dr. Evil, Hoffman’s Davian is ruled by simple greed, a quality that makes him perfectly understandable. His cruelty is not doled out from sadistic pleasure, but simply as part of doing business.

Slide 10: The Charming Heavy (Before the Devil Knows You're Dead)

In Sidney Lumet’s tough (and at times tender) Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, Hoffman switched sides with his earlier characters. In this story of a heist gone bad, the shambling, disordered loser role goes to Ethan Hawke, who plays Hoffman’s brother. Hoffman now is the tough-as-nails heavy, a man who commands everyone around him with slippery charm and just the whiff of violence. But as the Village Voice’s J. Hoberman points out, Hoffman’s various characters are housed in the same weighty presence: “Hoffman uses his bulk as a form of authority and a bulwark against the world; he's too versatile an actor to be considered playing against type. Andy is a dead-voiced, doughy mass of repressed rage who also has a secret life: He needs money to feed his drug habit and escape an embezzlement charge that's hanging over his head. Smacked out in a luxury shooting gallery, he tells the epicene proprietor: ‘All my parts don't add up.’”

Slide 11: Macho Bastard (Charlie Wilson's War)

In Mike Nichols screwball political comedy Charlie Wilson’s War, the trifecta of Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Hoffman create, as they say about politics, strange bedfellows. But, according to Stephen Hunter at The Washington Post, “The best relationship in the film isn't sexually driven, it's banter-driven: the weird chemistry between Charlie and CIA field agent Gust Avrakotos, an oddball Greek American with shrewd street wiles. Avrakotos is played in high brio by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who is terrific, as he almost always is.”

Slide 12: The Contender (Doubt)

In John Patrick Shanley’s faith-driven drama Doubt, Philip Seymour Hoffman is a popular priest who is forced to match theological wits with controlling nun Meryl Streep. While the drama reflects the complexity of faith and certainty, the real spectacle is the duel between two of cinema’s greatest character actors. In one corner, the slender chameleon Streep, whose gifts of imitation enable her to switch identity at a moment’s notice. In the other corner, Hoffman, the solid hulk whose weight and depth bring new dimension to every role. In USA Today, Claudia Puig wrote, “Philip Seymour Hoffman is every bit her equal in his spectacular portrayal of the genial accused priest, Father Flynn…. There may not be two better actors working today: To watch Hoffman and Streep match wits is exhilarating.”

Slide 13: Pillar of His Own World (Synecdoche, New York)

Over the years, Hoffman has moved from scene-stealing side characters to powerful leads strong enough to carry a feature film. But in taking on the role of the theater director with a desire to replicate his life in art in Synecdoche, New York, Hoffman is forced to support the whole world. In her review for the Austin Chronicle, Marjorie Baumgarten explains, “Synecdoche, New York is anchored by the always remarkable Hoffman as upstate New York regional theatre director Caden Cotard, whose marriage, relationships, home, and health are all seemingly crumbling.” One wonders if any other actor could stand unfazed as Charlie Kaufman’s post-modern tower of mirrors collapses around him.

Slide 14: The Rock 'n' Roller (Pirate Radio)

As the American DJ on the scruffy transmitter boat off the coast of England in Richard Curtis’s Pirate Radio, Hoffman returns to the ensemble comedies that he started his career with. For Curtis, whose screenplays are the height of British ensemble comedy, found Hoffman not only to be another hand on deck, but a force that helped steer the production. For Curtis, what was essential was Hoffman’s "extraordinarily naturalistic work, from the moment he stepped onto the set. Phil pointed us towards the M*A*S*H spirit, as I had hoped.”

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