From the Archive: he’s been sly, sad, unwatchably private, two writers and a drag queen. Tom Shone traces the career of Philip Seymour Hoffman
From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Autumn 2010
1992: Scent of a Woman—George Willis Jr
Hoffman had to audition five times for the role of the preppy who rats out Chris O’Donnell—an act of betrayal for which a generation of cinemagoers remains eternally grateful. Leonine, entitled, freckled, boorish, Hoffman’s bully seemed to own the air breathed by others. It was this performance that caught the attention of Paul Thomas Anderson, who was to cast him in “Boogie Nights”, “Magnolia” and “Punch-Drunk Love”, playing exactly the kind of pudgy self-haters George Willis Jr would have rounded on mercilessly. It is almost as if Hoffman were playing his own tormentor.
1997: Boogie Nights—Scotty
As the boom operator in Anderson’s epic about the porn trade, Hoffman bulged out of his T-shirt, a fatso in a sea of perfect bodies, ruinously in love with Mark Wahlberg’s blithely indifferent stud. Along with his sex pest in “Happiness” (1998), Scotty made Hoffman Hollywood’s masturbator-in-chief. Almost unwatchably private, his gut overhanging his underpants, his flesh luminous with self-loathing, these turns were the boldest of self-proclamations—a talent daring itself into the open, like a bashful streaker.
1999: Flawless—Rusty Zimmerman
Joel Schumacher’s buddy movie about a cop who has a stroke (Robert De Niro) and takes singing lessons from a drag queen (Hoffman) is formula stuff. De Niro is dour, maybe sensing that this was Hoffman’s show—his first leading role, and the first to show his feminine grace. Drag is a gift to an actor—it’s a role-within-a-role—and it was everywhere in the 1990s, but with Hoffman the off-moments are most revealing, as when Rusty bellows expletives at a retreating De Niro. Beneath the sequins and pearls, he locates a survivor’s weary toughness.
1999: The Talented Mr Ripley—Freddie Miles
His first outright theft of a movie. Anthony Minghella’s thriller has Jude Law, Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow, but Hoffman is as sly as smoke as a playboy who rolls up in Rome and smells a rat. “How’s the peeping, Tommy?” he asks Damon, as maddeningly cheerful as Peter Sellers in “Lolita”. Among those he impressed was Meryl Streep. “This actor is fearless,” she said. “He’s given this awful character the respect he deserves, and made him fascinating.”
2000: Almost Famous—Lester Bangs
Cameron Crowe’s soft-hued rock memorabilia album feels over-praised these days—a relic of the time when Kate Hudson was Hollywood’s latest crush and Crowe was the new Billy Wilder; but Hoffman still pops as the ornery, caffeinated rock critic Lester Bangs. “You got here just in time for rock’n’roll’s death rattle,” he informs his young protégé. “There’s nothing about you that’s controversial.” Likewise the movie, but it showed how easily Hoffman could switch between the most rambunctious extroverts and featherlight introverts.
2005: Capote—Truman Capote
Toby Jones’s Capote in “Infamous” (2006) was the finer act of mimicry, but Hoffman’s was the greater performance. He shed pounds, reined in his movements, and ditched his baritone to get that goose-quill voice, but having taken his fill of him, he empties himself again: his Capote is a manipulative empath, drawing others out with a crocodile’s cunning. He won an Oscar for Best Actor, surprisingly, for the academy like their geniuses hot. Bennett Miller’s film is almost funereal; at the end, Capote sips Martinis as if readying himself to slip beneath their surface for good.
2007: Charlie Wilson’s War—Gust Avrakotos
Hoffman is illicitly enjoyable in Mike Nichols’s comedy. As a CIA bureaucrat with a sagging gut, tinted specs and the kind of ’tache worn only by true commie-haters, he fires off Aaron Sorkin’s lines as if belching smoke. He’s so fulminous that he might derail the movie were it not for the comic rhythm he finds with Tom Hanks. “You’re no James Bond,” says Hanks. “You’re no Thomas Jefferson, either,” snaps Hoffman. “So let’s call it even.” Their first meeting in the congressman’s office is a door-slamming farce unto itself.
2008: Doubt—Father Brendan Flynn
Few actors could have met the demands made by John Patrick Shanley’s drama about a Catholic priest accused of molesting one of his pupils, which required that we believe equally in his innocence and his possible guilt. The film, adapted by Shanley from his own play, is a little too pleased with this central ambiguity, but it lives through its performances. Earlier, we might have been too ready to see Hoffman as capable of perversity—he had been a disgraced preacher in “Cold Mountain” (2003)—but it’s funny what Oscars can do for an actor: freshly garlanded, he brought a new probity to the part.
2010: Jack Goes Boating—Jack
Hoffman’s directorial debut, and his first romance, comes courtesy of a play about a solitary limo driver (Hoffman) and his attempts to woo a funeral parlour worker (Amy Ryan). It’s one of those sad-sack romances in which two beaten-down characters come out of their shells—“Frankie and Johnny” with more pot—and while Hoffman makes no effort to hide the tale’s theatrical roots, his performance is tender, precise, like a pianist tickling the keys. For higher voltage, we can wait for his imminent reunion with Streep and Mike Nichols in the marriage-counsel drama “Great Hope Springs”. It does indeed.
Tom Shone is a former film critic of the Sunday Times and the author of "Blockbuster". His novel about recovery, “In the Rooms”, was published by Hutchinson. Other installments of our CV series can be found here