With Sunday evening came the devastating news that cinema had lost one of its most cherished masters. Philip Seymour Hoffman, perhaps best known for his Oscar winning portrayal of New York writer Truman Capote, had been found dead in his Manhattan apartment due to a suspected drug overdose. Perhaps the most tragic aspect of the terrible news is that Hoffman, who regularly worked with acclaimed director Paul Thomas Anderson, was 46 at the time of his death, cutting short a career that no doubt would have contained countless future successes. Despite this, Hoffman leaves behind a truly inspirational legacy of cinema and remains a beacon for the film industry.
Without a doubt, the greatest achievement of Hoffman’s career comes in the form of Lancaster Dodd, otherwise known as The Master (2012). The Master was Hoffman’s fifth collaboration with Paul Thomas Anderson, having previously created a catalogue that includes the seminal films Boogie Nights (1997) and Magnolia (1999). Much is often made of The Master’s links to the Scientology movement and its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, but this is just speculative background context and largely irrelevant to the film. What gives The Master its subject matter is Hoffman himself. His outstanding performance allocates the film meaning; The Master is essentially about the impossibilities of existence and the nature of truth and authenticity. It is a pensive reflection on parallels: Hoffman’s flawless portrayal of Dodd being matched by Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell. The two characters are intertwined and impossibly linked, each one fascinated with the other whilst maintaining their polarised positions. Lancaster Dodd is a staggering achievement and Hoffman’s attention to detail is remarkable. In Dodd he presents a cool, calm, charismatic man with a wealth of insecurities, troubles and personal demons bubbling just below the surface.
Philip Seymour Hoffman has always shined brightest when faced with dense, philosophical roles. This is perhaps best demonstrated in 2009’s Synecdoche, New York; a postmodern exploration of Heideggerian thought. Here, Hoffman plays Caden Cotard, a solipsistic, narcissistic theatre director convinced he is hurtling towards death. In his last bid for artistic recognition, he decides to create his most ambitious project to date: that is, the manufacture of a mechanic, life-sized version of New York inside a warehouse. Hoffman’s Cotard is a masterpiece; he is a visionary artist, just as infinitely complex as Lancaster Dodd and with even more insecurities. What is even more remarkable about Hoffman’s portrayal is the time span of the film- we join Cotard when he is just 40 years old. He has just reached 80 at the end of the story. When creating a character like Caden Cotard, the strength lies in the subtlety, and subtlety was Philip Seymour Hoffman’s art.
With such a cabinet of elevated and sophisticated performances, it is often difficult to remember Hoffman for the wealth of diverse roles he has played along the way. From arms dealer Owen Davian in J.J. Abrams Mission: Impossible III (2006) to his supporting role in Twister (1996) and even working with the Coens on The Big Lebowski (1998), Hoffman’s talent as an accomplished and very capable actor has always shone, no matter the role. What’s more, such was Hoffman’s command of the screen, his presence was always noticeable whatever the size of the role. Of course, younger cinephiles or those more accustomed to recent blockbusters will recognise Hoffman as Plutarch Heavensbee in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013), the second in the four-part series. Hoffman’s ability to adapt to the film no matter the genre, or indeed the age or type of audience it is aimed at, is what made him a truly outstanding actor.
An often-overlooked performance of Hoffman’s, perhaps due to the film being stop-motion animation, comes within 2009’s Mary and Max. He plays the eponymous Max Jerry Horowitz, a New Yorker diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome who gains the friendship of a socially awkward Australian girl. Remarkably, Hoffman’s voice work cuts through the clay and plasticine figures on-screen to locate the human heart of the film. Hoffman gives an empathetic voice to Max, which enables us to gain some understanding of the struggles of living with such a condition in a society that is yet to recognise Autism as a genuine disorder. Mary and Max features Philip Seymour Hoffman at his best; providing an accessible route to the tender matter of the human condition.
In an interview for NBC on Monday morning, host of Inside The Actor’s Studio, James Lipton, called Hoffman “the greatest actor of his generation”, and this is no overstatement. No other actor had such talented control over the dramatic arts whilst remaining so calm, humble and stoical in the public sphere. It is still hard to believe that we have lost him in such tragic circumstances. Hoffman will appear in the final two films of The Hunger Games series, the latter of which had nine days of shooting left when he passed. He will also star in a new adaptation of a John LeCarré novel entitled A Most Wanted Man later in the year. One can only hope that these final few films will be a fitting eulogy to a truly remarkable actor.