Essays · Movies

Reflecting on Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Enduring Legacy Four Years After his Death

Remembering what made a Philip Seymour Hoffman performance so unforgettable.
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By  · Published on February 6th, 2018

February 2nd, 2018 marked four years since the passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman. The Academy Award-winning actor was considered by many to be one of the greatest actors of his generation. His unexpected death completely shook the film industry in 2014. Four years after the fact, the loss doesn’t feel any less painful.

Hoffman burst onto the film scene in 1992 as a spoiled and entitled prep school student in Scent of a Woman. On the commentary track for the film Hard Eight, longtime collaborator Paul Thomas Anderson described seeing Hoffman for the first time in the film:

“I first saw Philip Seymour Hoffman in ‘Scent of Woman,’ directed by Marty Brest. And I remember sitting in the theatre and seeing that movie and just falling in love with Phil Hoffman, like, fuck. Whoever this guy is, I gotta have him, I gotta see him, I gotta know him. (…) You know, it’s just such an incredible performance.”

This effectively puts into words how most people feel the first time they see one of Hoffman’s performances. Even in small supporting roles playing the most despicable jerks or unabashed losers, something about Hoffman draws you in.

After those early roles, Hoffman went on to bring incredible depth and humanity to a wide range of characters. In 1997, he played the bumbling Scotty, a boom operator with an unrequited crush on Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler, in Boogie Nights. His scenes culminate in an absolutely heartbreaking moment that ends with Scotty in tears, repeating “I’m such an idiot” to himself in his car. With Scotty, Hoffman turned a role that might’ve simply been played for laughs by another actor into something much more meaningful.

Boogienights Philipseymourhoffman

In 1998, Hoffman played the doting Brandt in The Big Lebowski – the ultimate cult film – directed by the Coen Brothers. In this comedic turn, you can’t help but feel sorry for Brandt, who must always maintain his decorum in increasingly ridiculous situations with an array of poorly mannered characters.

Hoffman also starred in Charlie Kaufman‘s directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York in 2008. While the film initially polarized critics, most agreed that Hoffman’s portrayal of Caden Cotard was deeply moving. Caden is a man who is never satisfied and who is always anxious. Throughout the film, he struggles to create his magnum opus in the form of an ever-growing stage production.

While Caden is preoccupied with achieving something that will never truly give him the feeling of completeness he so desires, all the people he claims to care for so passionately pass him by. The more you reflect on Caden’s decisions throughout the film, the more you feel like you should actually hate him. He casts his new family aside, he’s selfish, he plays with Hazel’s emotions, and so on. However, Hoffman’s portrayal makes it so that we care for and empathize with Caden deeply. The character and the film are infinitely more interesting for it.

In 2012, Hoffman played the frightening and charismatic Lancaster Dodd in The Master. The film marked his final collaboration with Paul Thomas Anderson. His character was based on L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology. The film is well-known for featuring three electrifying performances from Hoffman, Amy Adams, and Joaquin Phoenix. The three elevate and compliment each other to deliver a film that is unlike any other. In an interview with Vanity Fair, Adams said this of her experience collaborating with Hoffman:

“I’ve worked with great actors where this hasn’t happened, and I’ve worked with great actors where this has. I think it’s just the chemistry between two people where the work becomes very intimate. I can’t speak for Phil’s experience with me, but this is how I felt with him. And I felt it first on ‘Doubt’ when we were doing a scene and it just felt real; it felt like it was actually happening. You almost stop acting, and it’s like you’re living this moment with another actor.”

Any scenes between these three exemplify what she’s referring to, including the famous interrogation scene.

These performances are just some of my own personal favorites from Hoffman’s body of work. Ask any Hoffman fan what theirs are and be sure to receive a diverse list from each.

Hoffman was never pigeonholed into always playing the same type of character, but his performances still all feel unified. His unique ability to fearlessly bare every aspect of himself and appear unattractive in any and every sense can be seen in all of his work. The openness and vulnerability that he brought to roles – every role, including the comedic ones and the blockbusters – was simply unparalleled. No one could make you care about messed-up characters like he could. No one else could make you watch a movie with a young Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law and Cate Blanchett (The Talented Mr. Ripley) and make you say, “But what about that blonde asshole guy? I want to see more of him.”

Hoffman also had a very impressive theatre career, which led to three Tony Award nominations. In 2000, he performed alongside John C. Reilly in a production of True West, in which the two famously traded roles every night. This just speaks to his extreme versatility as an actor

Four years after Hoffman’s death, there is still just as much to discuss when it comes to the actor. Enjoy this gorgeous and sweeping tribute to Hoffman’s illustrious career by Caleb Slain. Be sure to add any unseen films of his that pique your interest to your watchlist.

Enjoys watching sunrises and sunsets, but prefers watching the Richard Linklater trilogy.