by Matt Smith
You know, I have had trouble writing pieces for TheSplitScreen since early last semester. I have even put off posting my “Best of ’13” list even though it’s now February for various reasons, though mostly it’s pure laziness. But this afternoon, I found out—much like the entire internet—that Philip Seymour Hoffman had died, and I was gobsmacked. To put it lightly, Hoffman was, to me, a god among men. He is one of the greatest actors of his generation, respected by his peers and fans alike for his seemingly indefatigable ability to turn character after character into an amazing one-of-a-kind creation. His range of talent, his immense personality on and off the screen, and his personification of the profession of acting were already nearing legendary status. And now Philip Seymour Hoffman is dead at 46.
To know what this man has meant to me, I have to begin with my youthfulness. I am in my thirtieth year of life. Quite literally, Hoffman was there at the birth of my awareness that cinema meant something big to me, deeply, personally. In 1998 I saw both Boogie Nights and The Big Lebowski, and I fell in love with cinema in a way that was different than my previous love of watching movies. I loved movies. P.T. Anderson, the Coens, and their amazing stable of actors changed the way I saw the world, and I would never be able to go back. Philip Seymour Hoffman was a key part of that development, playing Scotty and Brandt in each film, respectively. He was amazing, and I made note.
It would be easy to merely catalogue the man’s great performances (and there were many), but instead I want to gesture toward his career more broadly by saying that Hoffman had a presence and talent that was infinitely watchable. Even the most bland of projects could be turned around, even slightly, by his involvement. To illustrate this, think of the middle-brow and competent but otherwise forgettable Ben Stiller rom-com Along Came Polly, in which his best-friend character Sandy Lyle is the only thing with a comedic pulse in the film. Or, consider his rock-n-roll radio DJ the Count in the Richard Curtis counter-culture misfire Pirate Radio. Whenever the films like these in his filmography come up in casual conversation, he is quite literally the only part of them I remember fondly, if I remember the rest of the film at all.
The point being that Philip Seymour Hoffman was there for me as I developed a deep appreciation for the art of cinema, and the craft of acting. And in all honestly, I find that surprising, as he was not the physical embodiment of perfection we seem to so often demand of our entertainers. But we accepted him, and he gave to us, and it was all wonderful. He was to the late-1990s and 2000s what Bruce Dern was to the late-1960s and ‘70s. He was an actor’s actor, which is a rarer thing it seems; the great actor that gets the recognition, but not always the fireworks or the awards (though he received at least one major award and a bevy of nominations). As good as Day-Lewis, but on a different plane, one where the similarly always-terrific Gary Oldman has never won an Oscar, but is beloved and respected.
Hoffman did win the golden man statue for his turn as Truman Capote in Bennett Miller’s biopic of the writer’s investigation of the killings that eventually turned into the groundbreaking classic In Cold Blood. In his speech, he thanked his mother: “My mum’s name is Marilyn O’Connor. She’s here tonight and I would like if you see her for you to congratulate her because she brought up four kids alone and she deserves congratulations for that.” That portion of that speech is one of the most memorable Oscar moments in recent memory, mainly because Hoffman came off as so very human.
His last great performance—though he is certainly terrific in the Hunger Games sequel Catching Fire, don’t get me wrong—was in P.T. Anderson’s The Master, which is by many estimations, mine included after repeated viewings, the best American film made that year, if not so far in the current decade. In that film he played Lancaster Dodd, the leader of a religious cult that was not entirely unlike Scientology and its founder L. Ron Hubbard. Dodd was a part that Hoffman disappeared into completely. He became the driving force of a film that could have (and by some accounts did) wandered off into its own headspace, especially with the knock-out performance by Joaquin Phoenix as a boozed-out, sexed-up ex-sailor that functioned as the film’s emotional crux. Hoffman crafted a character so soulful, charismatic, and by turns frightening that I haven’t been able to shake the thought of him since I saw The Master in theaters.
And that’s all I wanted to say. I had to get it off my chest how important this man was as an actor and artist. The death of Philip Seymour Hoffman has affected me deeply. Even I am surprised at how much. I just can’t imagine the world without the man.