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In Memoriam: Philip Seymour Hoffman
"The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone else when we're uncool."
By Rob Vaux
February 04, 2014
The sudden passing of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman this past Sunday carries echoes of another talented actor's untimely demise: Heath Ledger, who died in a similar manner just eleven days earlier in the calendar year and whose passing was treated with the same mixture of shock and disbelief. Both men ranked among the most versatile and talented performers of their generation. Both died well before their time. And both left behind a legacy made all the more heartbreaking for that fact that it was incomplete.
I don't want to get into the circumstances of Hoffman's death. He clearly had his demons and by all accounts gave them pitched battle for many years before finally succumbing to them. His work, however, was a thing to behold, all the more impressive because of its subtlety. Though he often appeared in the lead, he seemed just as happy with meaty supporting roles, spinning stew out of an oyster so many times that we came to expect it as a matter of course.
For instance, look at one of his very first roles in Martin Brest's Scent of a Woman, playing the kind of obsequious weasel he became very well known for. His character was basically a plot device: a fair-weather friend who turns on Chris O'Donnell's hapless fellow student basically to let Al Pacino call it all beforehand. But Hoffman, at the tender age of 24, took a thankless part and all but stole the show with it. The flashy confidence giving way to mushy evasions… the self-loathing at being forced to name names at the climactic school hearing… we *knew* this guy, and with him, Brest's middlebrow piece of Oscar bait became something much more interesting than it might have been.
Hoffman found his way to similar twerps as his star rose throughout the 1990s. The most prominent was his grating yes-man in The Big Lebowski, another case of taking a throwaway role and turning it into something special. But along with those parts, he resolutely set about demonstrating the wide array of characters he could play. He found kindness and sympathy as the male nurse in Magnolia; pathos and loneliness as the closeted hanger-on in Boogie Nights; sinister sleaze as the phone-sex pimp in Punch-Drunk Love; cynical assuredness as rock critic Lester Bangs in Almost Famous. Every role seemed to build on the last, telling us what he could do, how far he could go and just how wide his range could get.
He was never showy or grandiose with any of them. He often shied away from big-budget blockbusters in favor of smaller indie productions, and indeed seemed to treat fame as an unasked for and not entirely welcome side effect of acting. His appearance in last year's Hunger Games sequel was something of an anomaly, thought it also demonstrated his extraordinary range. We didn't know what to make of his character, and the plot ultimately suggested that he could have kept pace with any direction the writers chose to take him.
And as always, it came wrapped in nuance and subtlety. You didn't have to pay attention when Hoffman was doing his thing, but you were missing out on a depth and richness rarely seen in movies today. Character was everything to him, one of the reasons he stuck to smaller productions instead of looking for a big payday. We came to expect strong performances as a matter of course, and he almost never let us down. Even in the worst productions on his resume, he gave us something worth noticing. And like everyone that good at what he did, he made it look so effortless.
Somehow, that fresh-faced up and comer who laughed too loudly at The Dude's jokes became an established part of the landscape, and for sixteen years made us excited to go to the movies. His richly deserved Oscar for 2005's Capote came as a matter of course, and we somehow knew that it wouldn't be the last piece of hardware on his shelf. As it turns out, it was. Just like that, he was gone, reminding us of how great he was and mourning all the unmade films that will never be improved by his merest presence. There are a few curtain calls to enjoy -- The Hunger Games sequels apparently won't have to be recast -- but we never really appreciated what we had in him because we assumed it would be there for a long, long time to come.
That's the power of subtlety, something this one-of-a-kind actor always understood, and which remains an indelible part of a legacy that ended too soon. You were the very best Philip; so long, and thanks for everything.