Paying tribute to the career of an actor who hadn’t yet peaked is a task that no one looks forward to. But what Phillip Seymour Hoffman brought to the screen demands consideration. From his breakthrough role as the sexually confused stage hand in Boogie Nights to his 2005 Oscar award-winning performance as Truman Capote in Capote, Hoffman did what he did best: Made every scene he was in riveting.
Found dead on Sunday of an apparent heroin overdose in his Manhattan apartment, Hoffman was open about his addiction issues early in his life and just last year entered a 10-day rehab program to deal with a relapse that started with prescription painkillers. Like James Gandolfini, Heath Ledger, and a sadly long line of gifted actors before him, he was taken from us while still in the prime of his career with the promise of so much more to come. He was 46.
But let’s focus on what he did accomplish, and why he will be sorely missed. He was well known for bringing characters to life not with tics and gimmicks, but with a way of speaking and gesturing that felt authentic. His roles in The Big Lebowski and Boogie Nights for example, were painfully awkward (for different reasons) but you never once doubted they were real for his character.
It wasn’t always awkwardness that made his roles standout in the films he was in. He knew how to play ferociously self-confident as well. As the jaded mentor Lester Bangs in Almost Famous and master manipulator Plutarch Heavensbee in the Hunger Games film series, he commanded the screen with unquestionable statements and knowing half-smiles.
The realness of his performances, whether villain or hero, star or sidekick, rarely relied on you feeling affection or repulsion for the character . Instead he conveyed the power of the words he was given to say in a way that made you forget he was playing a role . Think of his morally questionable portrayal of Chris O’Donnell’s best friend in Scent of a Woman. Or his portrayal of the outright villainy of Owen Davian from Mission Impossible III that elevated that standard action franchise flick. And, honestly, any one of the five films he did with director Paul Thomas Anderson, including his highly-regarded role as a cult leader in The Master.
And then, of course, there is the role that won him the Best Actor Academy Award for Capote. Capturing the voice and mannerisms of the famous writer/celebrity while conveying the complexity of the character vaulted Hoffman into leading actor status.
And it wasn’t just his film roles, but work on the stage as well. He garnered three Tony award nominations and was Artistic Director of Off-Broadway’s LAByrinth Theater Company and directed one of the company’s plays, Jack Goes Boating, as a feature film.
Fortunately for those mourning him as an artist, Hoffman has several unreleased films of varying completion at the time of his death. God’s Pocket and A Most Wanted Man both just screened at Sundance last month and Hoffman garnered praise for his roles in each. And he completed principal filming for all of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 and all but the last week of filming of Part 2. So look back at his legacy of of his performances, the enormously understated talent he shared with us and not at the circumstances of his death. What made him unforgettable still endures.