The news of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death in New York at age 46 marks an instant diminishment of American movies. He was that good, that essential, and that irreplaceable.
Had he come along a decade or two earlier, he might have been a major movie star. Not hampered by prettiness or vanity, and completely unafraid to play characters who wore their neuroses, defects and generally unlovable characteristics on their sleeves, he was like a ’70s movie star slightly out of sync with the times. How perfectly he’d have fit in with the era that found favour and fascination in such irredeemably prickly screen presences as Gene Hackman, Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall, Bruce Dern, Jack Nicholson and Harvey Keitel, and what a pity he never had the chance to work with such directors as Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Stanley Kubrick, Paul Schrader, Francis Coppola or John Cassavetes.
An avid admirer of many of those actors and directors, Mr. Hoffman’s inspiration clearly derived from that period he just missed, and he carried into his career a quality of lid-simmering intensity that marked him as a natural draw for filmmakers seeking something toxic to stir in the mix. Although he spent a ritual career apprenticeship on TV (Law and Order) and in movies that barely noticed him (Leap of Faith, My Boyfriend’s Back), he was quickly recognized for something dangerously different when the young Paul Thomas Anderson cast him in his debut directorial effort Hard Eight in 1996. Another artist steeped in the postcountercultural New American Cinema of the late ’60s and ’70s, Mr. Anderson was drawn to Mr. Hoffman as naturally as a moth to a light bulb, and the hitching of director and actor would hold for every Anderson movie save There Will Be Blood (2007) since.
In Mr. Anderson’s movies Boogie Nights, Punch Drunk Love and The Master, Mr. Hoffman amounted to a constantly unsettling presence, a perennial reminder of instability and potential violence, the human equivalent of a skewed camera angle, a discordant musical note, or a jump cut: nothing he was in could be trusted to remain calm, steady or unpunctured. Capable of shifting from serene to volcanic in a seeming blink, he might only have been matched in the suggestion of eruptive possibility, not to mention deglamourized masculine animal bulk, by the just as sadly short-lived James Gandolfini.
He had pale, lightly freckled skin that seemed entirely unacquainted with sunlight, just enough physical girth to suggest appetites that weren’t easily suppressed, and a way of seeming to be thinking a lot more than what he ever said – even if, as in The Master, he was saying something all the time. This meant he was one of those rare actors who was providing dramatic heat to whatever frame he found himself in, and woe betide anyone who couldn’t be warmed up by his fire. If Mr. Hoffman’s co-stars weren’t warmed in his fire, they were incinerated.
With Mr. Anderson providing the context, Mr. Hoffman was quickly conscripted by a host of filmmakers seeking a similar kind of incipient combustibility, and while this frequently meant he worked for the resurgent American indie cinema that sprung up in the ’90s – think of Mr. Anderson, the Coen Brothers, Todd Solondz, David Mamet, Spike Lee, Anthony Minghella – it also meant regular work in more standard fare because, like Gene Hackman, Mr. Hoffman could convey a kind of grounded professional gravitas in just about anything he appeared in. In Catching Fire, the Hunger Games sequel, his mere presence as the mysteriously motivated game master upped both the dramatic ante and the performance level of co-star Jennifer Lawrence. And the otherwise dramatically conventional proceedings of movies like Moneyball and The Ides of March were doubtless rendered less ordinary by the mere fact of Mr. Hoffman’s formidable support.
Then, of course, there was the Oscar-winning turn as Truman Capote in 2005’s Capote, directed by Bennett Miller, a performance that traded in insecurity, bravado, repressed sexuality, calculation, manipulation, narcissism and self-loathing all at once, and which seemed so true to a particular configuration of randomly converged human traits that it somehow managed to feel more real, or more revealing, than the real man who inspired it.
Mr. Hoffman insinuated himself in American movies at a time when Hollywood had fled so far from the sludgy, dark wellspring it briefly let itself fall into in the ’70s. By doing so, he made himself only that much more conspicuously untidy, unpredictable, unlikely and utterly indispensable. It is only with an entirely warranted sense of loss that we can imagine American movies without him.