Variety’s Justin Chang Remembers Philip Seymour Hoffman: A Master of His Screen Craft

From Truman Capote to Lancaster Dodd, Philip Seymour Hoffman wasn't afraid to go dark and deep over the course of his extraordinary film career.

Philip Seymour Hoffman

“You’re aberrated. You’ve wandered from the proper path, haven’t you? These problems you have … you seem so familiar to me.”

These words were spoken by Philip Seymour Hoffman in what would turn out to be one of his last screen performances, as the charismatic and conflicted cult leader Lancaster Dodd in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master.” They are the words of a self-styled leader and father figure, trying to reassure a man in whom he sees a lost, youthful trace of his own self, and that sympathy-for-the-devil quality is partly what makes the character so layered and seductive. It’s a magnificent performance, perhaps the actor’s greatest — one in which Hoffman, with his stout frame and arch, declamatory speech patterns, suddenly seemed possessed in body and spirit by Orson Welles.

Rather than giving us a one-note L. Ron Hubbard caricature, Hoffman invested Dodd with authority, empathy, curiosity, passion, hunger and, despite his lofty, manipulative way with language, an almost naive sort of emotional transparency. You knew, watching this dangerous harvester of souls, that you shouldn’t trust him, but Hoffman’s conviction inspired not just belief but a peculiar sort of affection. “Monstrous and maniacal though Dodd may be,” I noted in my review of “The Master,” “he’s a character to love.”

It’s not something I necessarily expected to write about an actor who, over the course of an astonishing career cut devastatingly short, made an art of playing such aggressively, defiantly unlovable characters — rarely more so than in his numerous collaborations with Anderson. My earliest memory of Hoffman on film is his turn as Scotty, a gay porn-crew member in 1997’s “Boogie Nights,” weeping and murmuring “I’m a fuckin’ idiot” over and over to himself after his fumbling aborted pass at Dirk Diggler. He followed that up with a far more extreme turn in Todd Solondz’s “Happiness”; as an office drone who spends his free time masturbating during prank calls to strangers, Hoffman once again excelled at finding pathos in the pathetic, pinpointing the loneliness and desperation that lay at the heart of the character’s perversion.

Watching him then — with his ruddy complexion, stocky build and a wild blond mass of hair that made vanity impossible — it was hard not to recoil from the sheer unloveliness of the actor’s appearance. The fascination of Hoffman’s early screen performances is that he didn’t seem especially interested in deflecting what is often politely referred to as an actor’s lack of “conventional good looks.” On the contrary, he seemed bent on magnifying it, burrowing ever deeper and darker, as though exploring the outer reaches of his own limitless capacity to repel. It felt nothing if not personal, and Hoffman himself acknowledged this unflattering impulse in a 2011 interview with the Guardian, in which he noted, “I had insecurities and fears like everybody does, and I got over it. But I was interested in the parts of me that struggled with those things.”

Fortunately, Hoffman’s formidable range and classically honed technique went beyond twisted, lumpen sad sacks, rich and strange though they were. He had a breakthrough year in 1999, bringing vigor and vinegary wit to the part of an aging pre-op transsexual in Joel Schumacher’s “Flawless,” while making major impressions in two star-packed prestige pictures. As a far-from-innocent bystander named Freddie Miles in Anthony Minghella’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” he stole the movie right out from under its cast — and considering it starred Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law and Cate Blanchett, that was grand larceny. Hoffman couldn’t have been more different, or more sympathetic, as a gentle, soft-spoken hospital nurse in Anderson’s “Magnolia,” a beacon of decency in a sea of raw, untamed humanity.

The following year brought his wonderfully big-hearted turn as the great rock critic Lester Bangs in Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous” — a gift of a role to moviegoers everywhere, but especially to members of a certain profession, capturing the enthusiasm and integrity, not the cynicism and vitriol, that should be every critic’s stock-in-trade. (“Be honest and unmerciful,” Bangs said; he could have been describing Hoffman’s ethos as an actor.) For cynicism and vitriol, though, you had only to watch his scalding performance as a CIA agent in 2007’s “Charlie Wilson’s War” (helmed by Mike Nichols, who also directed him onstage in “Death of a Salesman” and “The Seagull”), in which he chewed the scenery with furious, hilarious abandon, and garnered his second of four Academy Award nominations.

As thrilling as it was to see Hoffman emerge from obscurity and evolve from a sterling, well-regarded character thesp into a leading actor of tremendous intelligence, stature and emotional force, it may be the surest sign of his achievement that he did his finest work in concert with others, whether it was with Laura Linney as a jaundiced brother-sister duo in “The Savages”; with Edward Norton, Barry Pepper, Rosario Dawson and Anna Paquin as a fractured circle of post-9/11 New Yorkers in “25th Hour”; or with Marisa Tomei and Ethan Hawke as members of a family marked for tragedy in “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.” This was true even of “Capote” (2005), for which Hoffman, vanishing into the fey, diminutive frame of Truman Capote, won a richly deserved Oscar for best actor. Yet the aspects of the performance that linger most are not the fluttering mannerisms or the gratingly high-pitched voice, but rather the quietly intimate exchanges with Clifton Collins Jr. as the damaged killer Perry Smith, and with Catherine Keener as Capote’s grounded friend Harper Lee.

(Keener, as it happens, worked with Hoffman on multiple occasions, each time to distinct and memorable effect; their final duet, as a pair of lovers/musicians in the woefully underseen “A Late Quartet,” may well be the best of the lot. Another of his regular collaborators was Amy Adams, whose chilling marital dynamic with Hoffman in “The Master” could scarcely have been more different from their kindly clerical rapport in 2008’s “Doubt.”)

The news of this great actor’s passing comes barely a week after the conclusion of the 30th annual Sundance Film Festival, where I found myself in the unusual position of sitting through, and reviewing, a Philip Seymour Hoffman double bill. It was a mixed bag; his boozy, shlumpy character in “God’s Pocket” left me fairly indifferent — not a typical response, mine or anyone else’s, to a Hoffman performance. But his turn as a German intelligence operative in “A Most Wanted Man” was something else again: a rumpled yet magnetic portrait of one man’s determination to do an extremely difficult job and do it well. It was a heartening reminder of just how consistent, and consistently good, Hoffman could be.

The coming weeks and months, of course, will be dominated by discussion of how Hoffman’s death will impact the fortunes of a much bigger Hollywood property, “The Hunger Games” franchise. There will also be the usual hand wringing about the tragedy of yet another great talent claimed by substance abuse, and the irony of an actor — who, in performance after performance, seemed fully in control of every word and gesture — suffering a relapse after years of sobriety. When a performer’s work is this penetrating, this intimate and fully formed, it can be tempting to assume access to his personal experience, as if Hoffman’s talent somehow gave us right of entry to his soul, or at least entitled us to some explanation of why he went the way he went.

I’m reminded of Lancaster Dodd’s words to his young disciple, and perhaps to himself: “Don’t apologize. You’re a scoundrel.” For a brief second, you can almost imagine that the actor is speaking directly to the many broken, wandering souls he played — a rogues gallery of pervs, outcasts, lowlifes and struggling, ordinary men for whom Philip Seymour Hoffman owes no one an apology.