Philip Seymour Hoffman is the finest three-named actor of his generation, if you don’t count (and even if you do) Hoffman’s oft-cited idol, Daniel Day-Lewis. But Hoffman is even more of shape-shifter. He can look like a petulant baby. Or a malcontent Boy Scout-cum-homicidal maniac. Or the kid in “A Christmas Story” with a hormone imbalance. Or someone who sleeps in his shoes.
He will never be a movie star in the conventional sense, because the conventions of movie stardom require one to play oneself - or, the public version of oneself. “Everyone wants to be Cary Grant,” Grant once quipped. “Even I want to be Cary Grant.” It’s hard to imagine someone wanting to be Philip Seymour Hoffman. Especially since the genius of his acting means we don’t know who he is.
We do know who he’s been. A fawning houseboy in “The Big Lebowski,” Tom Cruise’s frightening psychopathic tormenter in “Mission: Impossible 3,” a loathsome preacher in “Cold Mountain.” The bereaved husband of a suicide in the little seen, but very affecting “Love Liza.” He’s played a gay character in several films (including “Boogie Nights,” one of several Paul Thomas Anderson movies he’s done, and in “Flawless,” playing a drag queen opposite Robert De Niro). He’s even played a critic, of all things (Lester Bangs, in “Almost Famous”).
But it is in Sidney Lumet’s “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” that Hoffman plays his most off-putting role, a scheming, dissolute cokehead who masterminds the robbery of his own parents. He invites you to dislike him.
It’s an easy enough thing to do. And it makes Hoffman not only not a movie star, but the anti-star. He’s never given audiences a hook on which to hang him; his identity remains amorphous and unmoored.
It is a curious aspect of Hoffman’s fame, in fact, that he does not seem to have become synonymous with the most recognized and honored performance of his career thus far - as Truman Capote in Bennet Miller’s “Capote.” Julia Roberts will never escape “Erin Brockovich” any more than Robert Redford will escape the Sundance Kid, or Billy Joel “Piano Man.” But perhaps that’s the difference between stardom and art. That, and hard work.
“I’ve known Philip since we were 15,” director Miller said of Hoffman, at the time “Capote” was released, “and he is not a mimic by nature. It took him a long, long time to get the physical aspects down, mostly by himself - the speech, how he held his hands. He had a lot of material available to him, and he locked himself in a room and worked and worked and worked and worked. Right up `til the first week of shooting, he was really straining for it. And what happens with an actor like him is that no matter how hard he studies, if he’s not connecting with the truth of the moment, if he ever became lost, it became very, very false. He’s an inside-out actor. No matter how much he prepared, it was never easy for him.”
It may not have been easy, but it won him an Oscar, a Golden Globe and perhaps a dozen critics’ awards. And it cemented his reputation as a chameleonic obsessive.
The transformation he made into Truman Capote was startling. “The remarkable accomplishment of Philip Seymour Hoffman,” said Wall Street Journal critic Joe Morgenstern, “was to internalize what seemed to be the whole person, as well as externalize the twitches and tics.” Whether “Capote” is a movie that lived up to Hoffman’s performance is something that will continue to be debated.
It will be debated, too, regarding “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.” In Lumet’s quite deliberate, time-fractured narrative (co-starring Albert Finney, Rosemary Harris, Marisa Tomei and Ethan Hawke), Hoffman - again, being the anti-star - plays not just villainy but moral bankruptcy, unprincipled avarice and reckless indulgence. As the well-to-do, coke-addicted brother of Hawke, Hoffman plans the perfect robbery, which happens to be of the suburban jewelry store owned by their parents. Things go wrong. They couldn’t go worse. Andy (Hoffman) betrays everyone and steals the movie doing it.
He is not, in other words, very nice at all, which is a risky business; give audiences even a glimmer of decency in a bad, bad man and they’ll respond as if he’s just produced a crowd’s worth of loaves and fishes. But Hoffman performance is so thoroughly repellent - and so right - he nearly rescues the movie from its self-inflicted, nonlinear-narrative meltdown.
He’ll be back on screen at the end of next month as Laura Linney’s irritatingly self-absorbed brother in “The Savages,” a film about a family coming together to care for an elderly parent.
As for Hoffman’s own family, he was born in Fairport, a suburb of Rochester, N.Y., and his parents divorced when he was 9. He got involved in high school theater, then went to the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, earning a BFA in 1989. His film debut was in 1991’s “Triple Bogey on a Par Five Hole” - credited as “Phil Hoffman” - but his breakthrough was as the pitiable, Dirk Diggler-adoring hanger-on in 1997’s “Boogie Nights,” the film that made P.T. Anderson’s career and remade Burt Reynolds’.
The hits that followed came in quick succession: “Happiness” (1998), “Flawless” (1999), “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (1999), “Magnolia” (1999), “Almost Famous” (2000) and “State and Main” (2000).
At the same time, Hoffman was securing a legacy on the New York stage, receiving Tony nominations for the 2000 revival of Sam Shepherd’s “True West” and “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” (2003). He appeared in Chekhov’s “The Seagull” for director Mike Nichols and “The Merchant of Venice” for Peter Sellars. In Manhattan, where he lives, Hoffman is co-artistic director of the LAByrinth Theater Co., where he directed two plays by Stephen Adly Guirgis, “Our Lady of 121st Street” and “Jesus Hopped the A Train.”
By keeping his finger in various performing and directing pies, Hoffman is living an life strategized for low-wattage longevity rather than celebrity’s magnesium flash. For an actor, it’s as close as you can come to perfection: Neither actors nor directors want to admit it, but the ideal cast for a play, or a film, is a group of expert performers nobody knows. No celebrity baggage, no preconceived notions, no instant recognition to hinder the creation of character within the mind of the audience. It can’t be done, of course, but Hoffman seems as close as we might come to a perpetually unknown entity.
The nearest we’ve come to a glimpse into the man himself was on Oscar night, as he received his statuette for “Capote” and his speech evolved into a touching, somewhat naked evocation of who Phil Hoffman is, and was. And why, despite his adroitness at playing the evil, and ambitious, and unscrupulous, you get a sense that he’s really OK.
“Thank you so much,” he told the Hollywood crowd. “And my mom’s name is Marilyn O’Connor, and she’s here tonight. And I’d like if you see her tonight to congratulate her. Because she brought up four kids alone, and she deserves a congratulations for that. Oh, I’m at the party, Mom, you know? And she took me to my first play, and she stayed up with me and watched the NCAA Final Four. And my passions, her passions became my passions. And, you know, be proud, Mom, because I’m proud of you, and we’re here tonight, and it’s so good. Thank you.”
PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN’S FILMS
The talented Mr. Hoffman started his film career in 1991. A partial filmography:
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007)
Mission: Impossible III (2006)
Strangers With Candy (2005)
Along Came Polly (2004)
Cold Mountain (2003)
25th Hour (2002)
Red Dragon (2002)
Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
Love Liza (2002)
Almost Famous (2000)
State and Main (2000)
The Talented Mr.Ripley (1999)
Patch Adams (1998)
The Big Lebowski (1998)
Next Stop Wonderland (1998)
Boogie Nights (1997)
Nobody’s Fool (1994)
When a Man Loves a Woman (1994)
The Getaway (1994)
Money for Nothing (1993)
My Boyfriend’s Back (1993)
Scent of a Woman (1992)
Leap of Faith (1992)
My New Gun (1992)
Triple Bogey on a Par Five Hole (1991)