Like a lot of movie fans, I first took notice of Philip Seymour Hoffman in “Boogie Nights,” where he gave a boldly pathetic turn as a groupie and hanger-on of the porn scene whose need to be liked and accepted was so naked that it was often hard to watch.
But once I knew his name, I eventually realized that I’d been enjoying Hoffman’s work for years, in roles as different as a storm-chasing techno-geek in “Twister” and an overly anxious small-town cop in “Nobody’s Fool.”
The role of movie star often requires that actors subject themselves to media scrutiny and constant visibility, to the point where they can no longer disappear on the screen. We are given a narrative about Starlet X, and before long, Starlet X can play only a limited range of roles.
But while Hoffman became a star, and won an Oscar for Best Actor for “Capote” in 2005, he also became one of this generation’s great screen performers, one who never got trapped in a box. No matter how big the billing, he never stopped being a character actor.
He could play masterminds (“Mission Impossible: III”) or petty crooks in over their heads (“Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead”). He could be lovesick (“Jack Goes Boating,” a sweet film which will, tragically, be his sole directorial credit) or a megalomaniac (the great “Synecdoche, New York,” “The Master”).
What Hoffman always was — no matter the role, no matter if it was in a tiny indie or a Hollywood blockbuster (he most recently surfaced in the “Hunger Games” sequels) — was genuine. He might have had enough of a recognizable speech pattern to make him imitable on “Saturday Night Live,” but Hoffman devoured the souls of the characters he played, never afraid to let audiences love or hate or pity them, so long as we were intrigued and engaged.
His passing at age 46 makes me sad, and perusing his IMDB page makes me sadder, if only because Hoffman had an extraordinary run as a performer. With four Oscar nominations for performances since 2006 – “The Master” (2012), “Doubt” (2008), “Charlie Wilson’s War” (2007) and the win for “Capote” (2005), there’s no telling what else he could have accomplished as a actor on both stage and screen and as a filmmaker.
The culture weeps when drugs snuff out the lives of talented young performers like River Phoenix and John Belushi, but it’s no less tragic when it happens to a middle-aged man. Hoffman packed a great deal into 22 years on the big screen, but there was room for much more.
Here’s the trailer for “Capote,” which won the actor an Oscar: