In Todd Solondz’ 1998 drama “Happiness,” the beautiful Lara Flynn Boyle played a popular author who could have any guy she wanted, but was strangely attracted to a man who continually made obscene phone calls to her apartment. Soon, however, she learned the calls were coming from her neighbor, to whom she was not attracted. The neighbor was a big guy, possessing absolutely no social skills, who almost certainly had never experienced a real relationship with a woman. His juvenile method of connecting with his neighbor was inexcusable, yet we could feel his despair and his longing in every word he muttered – either on the phone or in person. He was sweaty, uncomfortable and certainly pathetic; we hurt right along with him.
Who was this guy? He didn’t look like an actor. He looked like a social misfit who longed to connect with the world outside his apartment. Did Solondz simply find him in his own building, and decide to cast him based on the pure reality of his own life? No. It turns out this actor was a man by the name of Philip Seymour Hoffman. I had seen him before, in movies such as “Scent of a Woman” and “Boogie Nights,” but I had never really noticed him until I saw “Happiness.” I thought he was absolutely perfect for the role, but I assumed his body of work would be limited by typecasting.
Boy, was I wrong! A year later, I saw him in Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece, “Magnolia.” Here, he played a nurse caring for a dying television producer, played by Jason Robards. I knew this was the same actor from “Happiness” (his large frame and German build were hard to miss), but I felt like I was watching a different person. The two characters were so different I knew I had stumbled upon a true gem of an actor. This guy was so talented I knew his career possibilities were endless.
And they were. Hoffman would go on to win a Best Actor Oscar for his dead-on 2005 portrayal of author Truman Capote in the picture of the same name. In 2007, he and fellow “realistic” actress Laura Linney turned in magnificent performances as siblings caring for their dying father in “The Savages.” And 2012 brought arguably his greatest role – that of pseudo-religious leader Lancaster Dodd, loosely based on Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master.” Dodd was confident, loud, bombastic and controlling. But Hoffman managed to play him not as a jerk, but as a deeply flawed man in constant need of verification. When Dodd sings Lord Byron’s “I’ll Go No More A-Roving” at a high-class reception, he’s truly in his element. He figuratively grabs the partiers (and the audience) by the throat and won’t let go until he’s recognized as the “master.”
I can’t think of a more apt description of Philip Seymour Hoffman. He was the master of every role he ever played. He’d sink into his roles so deeply, we barely recognized him – even though his physique gave it away. We knew we were watching Hoffman, yet we weren’t sure where he’d take us this time. Hoffman was a true actor’s actor. He didn’t fool around with summer-release comic book fare. Most of his body of work was in art house pictures. Most teen moviegoers have no idea who he was. And that’s exactly how he wanted it.
Unfortunately, Hoffman died last week of a suspected heroin overdose – adding his name to those of Whitney Houston and Amy Winehouse, as artists who left the earth too soon. Drug and alcohol abuse has brought the careers of many artists to screeching halts. Hoffman’s demise leaves me wondering what the rest of his career would have looked like. How many more career-defining roles would he have graced us with? How many more Oscars would he have won? How many more times would he and Director Paul Thomas Anderson have combined their talents to push the limits of motion pictures into realms we can’t even imagine? Hoffman’s is a great and tragic loss. Hollywood will recover, as usual, but the career possibilities Hoffman left on the proverbial table can be only imagined.