Without exception, it was a pleasure to watch him meet a role. Even in those rare instances when the ideal dynamics of the part eluded him or there simply wasn’t enough there–not necessarily there on the page, since there’s reason to believe he was capable of bringing more than he found–for him to build a fully-realized, deeply-felt character, it was clear that Philip Seymour Hoffman took to his roles with a deep integrity designed to gain him insight. He was a character actor in the truest sense, including the predilection to disappear into roles, changing his physical appearance to suit the part, perhaps most notably in collapsing his bulky, unkempt self into the diminutive, agonizingly put-together person of Truman Capote in his justly Oscar-winning turn as the famed author. More than that, he acted down to the inner intricacies of his characters. In doing that, he was seemingly able to play absolutely anyone. It’s telling that of the actors who could be deemed to be in the stock company of Paul Thomas Anderson, it was Hoffman who was handed the greatest diversity of roles. While Philip Baker Hall and John C. Reilly were fixed within a certain range in the writer-director’s mind, Hoffman played a schlubby, sad porn crew technician, a gentle, tentative line-in nurse to a dying man, a brash mattress store owner, and a charismatic, despotic cult leader.
It’s his relatively recent reunion with another director that I think illustrates Hoffman’s approach to his craft. When Hoffman agreed to play Oakland Athletics manager Art Howe in Moneyball, he was again collaborating with Bennett Miller, the director of Capote. In the film, Howe is ultimately a minor figure, somewhat of an antagonist to General Manager Billy Beane, only to the degree that he doesn’t buy into the new stat-driven system his boss is trying to implement (the true antagonist of the film is the entirety of Major League Baseball’s atrophied thinking). Hoffman went from appearing in practically every scene of Miller’s debut fiction feature to a smallish supporting role in his long-awaited follow-up. And yet Hoffman didn’t try to make the part showier than it was or should be, delivering the sort of juiced-up fuss that signals an actor who knows he’s actually bigger than the role. He instead found the truth of Howe–the taciturn indifference and perturbed stubbornness –and fully committed to it. He wasn’t an Academy Award-winning actor doing his old director a favor. He was an actor in a role, committed to locking in at the proper level, in the proper place.
A few years ago, I responded to a meme that was making the rounds that included among its prompts something along the lines of “An Actor or Actress Who’s Good in Everything.” Taking these sorts of things way too seriously, I opted against an immediate, top-of-my-head response and really thought about it, actually surprising myself a bit when I landed on Hoffman. Before that, I hadn’t thought of him as a favorite actor or one I would follow anywhere. But when I took time to consider who was consistently strong, no matter the material, Hoffman was the only actor who qualified unequivocally. It certainly helped that around that time there was plausibly a multi-screen theater playing the remarkable triptych of Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Charlie Wilson’s War, and The Savages. It wasn’t strictly that fruitful grouping that drove my decision, though. There were those collaborations with Anderson, his small but satisfying turns in the likes of Cold Mountain, State and Main, The Big Lebowski, and even the largely lamentable Red Dragon, the latter an instance of Hoffman conveying almost the entirety of his character with little more than the way he entered a scene. All those titles, all those performances, and the list doesn’t yet include Freddie Miles in The Talented Mr. Ripley or Lester Bangs in Almost Famous.
I don’t know what demons dogged Hoffman, and frankly I don’t care. Not because I’m without empathy, but because I’m aware that it’s none of my business. This has been a particularly tumultuous weekend for film fans, all of it reinforcing one of my central beliefs: my intellectual and emotional appreciation of the art created, in the name of cinema or some other corner of pop culture that I helplessly love, affords me no entry to commenting on the private lives of those who create it. I sincerely wish Hoffman hadn’t felt whatever profound pain it was that drove him to his tragically early end, but I owe him (and his loved ones, who do have the personal connection that others presume) my silence on the life outside the screen and off the stage. The art he gave me is all I know and all I need to know. For every bit of it, I am grateful.