If you’d asked me to name my favourite actors a few weeks ago, I’m not sure how quickly or spontaneously I would have got to Philip Seymour Hoffman. However, since his very sad, premature death at the age of just 46, I’ve found myself thinking repeatedly about his performances and films, often prompted by excellent discussions on film podcasts like Filmspotting or Sound on Sight.
PSH was a great character actor, perhaps the great character actor of recent times. He could steal scenes and indeed entire movies with a small supporting performance, but he could just as easily dominate a film from start to finish with a rare charisma. There are fantastic reviews of his career all over the interweb, and a couple are here, or here. I recommend these to you. In the meantime, here’s What I Reckon…
Punch-Drunk Love is among my favourite films, and one of PSH’s many collaborations with my favourite director, Paul Thomas Anderson. This is the film where Adam Sandler proves he can act, brilliantly. PSH plays the outlandish Dean Trumbell (Mattress Man), and this is one of many examples where he acts the sh*t out of a tiny part, and makes a phonecall into a brilliant piece of cinema (and Sandler’s pretty good too!).
Boogie Nights is another brilliant PT Anderson film with a huge cast, of which PSH plays the peripheral bit-part of Scotty, the sound boom man. Scotty is in love with Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler, the new King of Porn. He gets drunk and tries to impress him at a New Year’s Eve party, and it doesn’t go well.
Apparently the scripted scene was supposed to end where Dirk turns and leaves: the last 20 seconds are all added by PSH, which bring so much more pathos to both the scene and his character, making the humiliation even more real and human.
Happiness is a deeply unpleasant film, filled with deeply unhappy and/or unpleasant characters, of whom Allen, played by PSH, is as unlikeable as they come. Seemingly crippled by self-loathing he harbours violent sexual fantasies that erupt in conversations with his therapist or in obscene phonecalls to his neighbours. Somehow, against all rational human sense, PSH makes Allen into a rounded character, almost forcing us to engage with him despite feeling repulsed. And in the final moments of this scene, he appears almost normal.
I can’t think of many actors who would have even attempted to play Allen, let alone imbue him with genuine humanity. He’s appalling, but he’s still one of us, and that commands our attention.
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is a flawed thriller in which PSH plays another all-messed-up guy. Andy Hansen is a seemingly well-to-do, successful real estate accountant. He’s also a drug addict, and in this clip of two scenes, we get a drawn-out and bleak vision of lonely, anonymous middle-class addiction in the middle of a city.
I’ve left out Magnolia, The Talented Mr Ripley, Mission Impossible III, Capote, Almost Famous, The Master, Charlie Wilson’s War, The Ides of March, and Synechdoche, New York. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s filmography is mightily impressive, but (for a cinephile like me) depressingly short. But it is a far greater tragedy than the cutting short of his career that drug addiction claimed his life when he seemingly had everything to live for, not least his partner and three children.
I might not have named him spontaneously a few weeks ago, but the more I’ve reflected, the more I come to the conclusion that he improved every film he was part of; he was always interesting. He did comedy and pathos, rage and gentleness. He compelled our attention in everything from blockbuster action franchises to difficult arthouse fare. He was usually distinctly uncool, and like Lester Bangs in Almost Famous, he was honest and unmerciful to his audience and to his characters.