Ten years ago, I was calling Philip Seymour Hoffman “America’s wettest actor” on the grounds of a bad movie, Love Liza, about a gas-huffing widower mourning his wife. Hoffman, who died last Sunday in Manhattan at the age of 46, always challenged us to get past the queasiness caused by his worst-case-scenario characters.
Today, I think the loss of Hoffman is inconceivable. The means of that loss is immaterial, as far as I’m concerned.
Actors have breakthroughs, whether the audience is there to watch them or not. One such was in The Savages, a bleak comedy about old age and decay, in which Hoffman showed a great capacity for tenderness. Hoffman’s character—a university professor in some distress because of a bum spine—was eminently lovable, listening to Kurt Weill and driving around Buffalo, N.Y., under the influence of a few stolen Percocets.
Tribute reels will recall his Bond-style villain in Mission: Impossible III, a perfect tuxedoed ogre, and the smooth croak of a voice that could rumble like distant thunder. They’ll include the older scenes, back when actors were tethered to telephone chords like leashed, pacing dogs, as when Hoffman had a fuck-you shouting contest with Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love. Significantly, some of Hoffman’ best performances were played pressed to telephone receivers, or alone, banging his skull in rage or disappointment.
He won the Oscar for Best Actor for Capote, and he was sensational, but it was his last huge performance that should have been honored.
I saw The Master in 70mm. It justified Paul Thomas Anderson’s faith in a grand, dying film format to see the final close-up of Hoffman’s
L. Ron Hubbard surrogate Lancaster Dodd as he was kissing off a favorite disciple (Joaquin Phoenix). There might have been an insinuation of sexual attraction; if so, that insinuation was just a skin-thin mask over something scarier: a raw urge to dominate and devour. I’ll never forget Hoffman’s face on that big screen, more frightening than the domed green head of the great and powerful Oz.