He played bullies really well, pouring impatience and frustration into these characters, breaking them out of the swaggering, dull stereotypes.
I'm not a movie expert. I've only seen a handful of his movies. I had to kip over to IMDb to spell his name right. Under normal circumstances, I would frown at my own ignorance and disqualify myself from writing about a recently-departed artiste. However, Philip Seymour Hoffman's passing struck harder than I would have imagined.
Hoffman was one of those actors I wanted to get to know better a few days from now. He is still on my bucket-list.
There are aspects of an actor that have universal appeal. Hoffman's physicality – never out of sync with his character, his on-call menace, or his uncanny ability to touch the very edge of emotional control, going to within one hair's breath of losing it, and then staying in that zone for the duration of the shot. It's equally a delight to watch when he snaps. Remember the scene where he yells at Tom Cruise, "You hung me from a plane," quite paying to the gallery in Mission: Impossible III. Cruise's expression was a loud "B@#$%^d. You stole my thunder. All of it."
Nobody squirms like Hoffman. The first movie I saw him in was Scent Of A Woman, with Chris O' Donnel and Al 'the awesome' Pacino. Before the final 20 minutes, when Pacino stands up and talks of taking "Flame thrower to this place," Hoffman is a bona fide bully who, under the shadow of Chris' ingratiating integrity, struggles with his own, rather thin streak of morality. He hesitates, for long seconds, before snitching on his friends and in those seconds, it's as if he can't believe he's struggling with the simple act of betrayal.
Nobody plays the supporting actor like Hoffman. When you're asked to invest emotion and logic on two or three stars in a movie, the camera tends to go a bit slack when the supporting cast comes on. It's like the director's gone to take a leak or something. Remember The Titans, for instance. Everytime the assistant coach comes on, you're taking stock of the popcorn and calculating distance versus time for another bathroom run. Not when Hoffman's in the movie. Whether he's the repressed roommate in Patch Adams, the grizzled campaign manager in Ides Of March, or the gum-chewing, indifferent coach in Moneyball. That last turn was especially interesting. This role was after Capote, after Mission: Impossible III. He hardly has any lines in it. He just stands and chews. And you'll still watch.
He even does sex scenes well. I thought he was incredibly convincing in that opening scene of Before The Devil Knows You're Dead, with Merisa Tomei. In this movie too, he plays a bully, pushing around a pliable Ethan Hawke. He plays bullies really well. The key, I imagine, is the impatience, the frustration he pours into these characters, that breaks them out of the swaggering, dull stereotypes.
Nobody ages like Hoffman. It would seem Hoffman was always older than his years. Even his turn in Scent Of A Woman was hardly typical of a young man. I daresay part of his impatience stemmed from his having to play someone younger than 40. This was the first Hoffman movie I saw, and when I saw him shambling in Twister, it was hard to believe he'd grown old so fast.
Nobody plays intelligence like Hoffman. Intelligence isn't a lenier thing. It isn't cold, or devoid of emotion. Hoffman got that. When a person figures something out - a device, trick, or even betrayal – there's a little thrill of delight at having discovered it. Hoffman patented that nifty little tell. That bit usually precedes rage, disbelief or any of the 10 other feelings Hoffman can do with his mouth open, but that second of delight is exclusive to Hoffman. The Talented Mr. Ripley, for instance. Oh, and what delicious condescension. Call me a cad for voicing his acting, but I can't help it. Hoffman fills the moments between discovering what Ripley did and being murdered for it, with an expression that says, "You worthless bit of snot. You pulled off something like this?" Watch the movie for Hoffman. And then for Jude Law.
Many of the eulogies I read correlated Hoffman's broiling talent with his addiction, speculating that snorting coke, or to be fair, the place that snorting coke took him to, helped lend imbalance and restraint in equal measure to his on-screen characters. His role in The Master, as the charismatic cult leader addicted to a stoaway's moonshine, was cited as an example. I tried to fit it in, but I really couldn't. His talent seemed to prodigious to be either dimmed or enhanced by drugs.
No, I'm not going to write about Capote or The Master. I'm sure he was incredible in them, but I haven't seen those movies yet. I'm sure I will, soon, but there's no rush anymore, is there? He isn't going to make anymore movies. Besides, I know how it all ends. The hero dies.
(Anand Venkateswaran works at Polaris, Chennai. You can contact him at anand.v@polarisFT.com)