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Film Opinion:

Hear Me Out: Philip Seymour Hoffman was Hollywood's greatest contemporary actor


Lacking the stereotypical good looks, slim build and sharp jawline of a classic American lead actor, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman is remembered as a titan of modern cinema, despite never really taking on any significant lead roles. With a pudgy build and a naturally affable disposition, Hoffman frequently found himself as the strange supporting character, the enigmatic individual into whom the actor had an extraordinary ability to breathe life. Bringing an effortless sense of humanity to every role he depicted, the actor was truly the finest of his generation. 

His doorway into acting was in itself somewhat of a spiritual experience when, at the age of 12, he saw a stage production of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons and was totally absorbed by the experience, recalling in 2008: “I was changed – permanently changed – by that experience. It was like a miracle to me”. Standing as a monolith to Hoffman’s future success, it was the group experience of acting that initially drew the actor to the industry, formulating human stories as he comments, “I loved the camaraderie of it, the people, and that’s when I decided it was what I wanted to do”. 

For Philip Seymour Hoffman, acting was more than a mere profession; it was an artform made effortless, with his acting style working hard to reflect reality rather than painstakingly replicate it. In conversation with Ethan Hawke on the set of Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Hawke recalls Hoffman telling him: “We’re just a bunch of kids putting on a play. It’s all a goof. But, also, treat it like life and death and a game that matters. If you can hold both those truths at the same time then you can really have an interesting career”. In short, ‘treat acting like life itself’. 

This mantra resonates throughout Philip Seymour Hoffman’s career, often playing variations of his own real-life character, subsequently facilitating sympathy and moments of great pathos. Despite appearing in several films throughout his emergence into the industry in the 1990s, such as Paul Thomas Anderson’s Hard Eight, it was Hoffman’s appearance in the director’s follow-up Boogie Nights that would truly establish him on the international stage. One of the filmmaker’s finest ever projects, Boogie Nights follows the golden of the porn industry in the 1970s, where Hoffman joins an ensemble cast alongside Mark Wahlberg, Julianne Moore, and Burt Reynolds to play a boom operator and a shameless loser. 

Attempting to seduce Wahlberg’s lead character Eddie Adams, Hoffman’s Scotty J. is a slippery shell of a young man, unable to truly grasp his own emotions and think for himself, though still, just like so many of Hoffman’s most iconic characters, we feel sorrow for his folly. Even the preppy arrogant Freddie Miles in Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley carries a certain humanity, a desperate pursuit of the truth behind his slack-jawed persona. Even to Meryl Streep, one of Hollywood’s greatest actresses, his performance was surprising, noting at the time: “I sat up straight in my seat and said, ‘Who is that?’ I thought to myself: My God, this actor is fearless. He’s done what we all strive for – he’s given this awful character the respect he deserves, and he’s made him fascinating”. 

At the turn of the 21st century, Philip Seymour Hoffman had a stranglehold on cinema, with his stature so inescapably grand that he could change the fortunes of any contemporary film. Though he is rightfully remembered for his transformative Oscar-winning performance in 2005s Capote and Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master in 2012, one cannot ignore the invigorating energy and unpredictability that he brought to his multiple supporting roles. Depicting a sadistic arms dealer in Mission Impossible III, a callous double-agent in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Philip Seymour Hoffman was able to allocate and extract a particular humanity in every role. An emotional, transformative performer with a devastating capability to elicit sympathy, his legacy is one of enormous artistic heft. 

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