A retrospective look at Philip Seymour Hoffman's defining roles 

The Wonder of the World

For Hoffman, no role was too small. Case in Point: His turn as Lester Bangs in Almost Famous.

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For Hoffman, no role was too small. Case in Point: His turn as Lester Bangs in Almost Famous.

Philip Seymour Hoffman is dead. Somehow that's hard to process — and maybe that's why there's so much energy being expended on the why of it and how he spent his last day and when he had that "slip" in his sobriety that caused things to end this way. The truth is that no matter what we learn, no matter how we parse it, or explain it, we'll never really know. More than that, however, it won't change the fact that Philip Seymour Hoffman is dead at the far too young age of 46. That is the irrefutable fact and the tragedy of it.

Normally, I try — and mostly succeed — to keep celebrity deaths in perspective. No matter how I feel about them, very few are known to me personally. Even fewer can I call friends. Hoffman is someone I didn't know at all. At best, I have an image of him — an image drawn from seeing him onscreen — that affords me the illusion of having known him. But all it is is an illusion. It's an amalgamation of Scotty J. in Boogie Nights, Phil Parma in Magnolia, Lester Bangs in Almost Famous, Truman Capote in Capote, Jon Savage in The Savages, Caden Cotard in Synechdoche, New York, Father Brendan Flynn in Doubt, The Count in Pirate Radio, and Lancaster Dodd in The Master. That is my Philip Seymour Hoffman. Yours may be slightly different, but the dynamic is the same. We know him through the characters he played. That's perhaps as it should be. That's perhaps who he wanted us to know.

Philip Seymour Hoffman was nobody's idea of a movie star — not even his. He was a character actor, but he was one of those rare character actors who became a bona fide star through the sheer force of his performances. Even after he became a star, he continued to appear in supporting roles or in an ensemble cast. There seems to have been no ego to the man. He never played the movie star. He chose his roles by their quality more than by the size of his billing. In other words, he was an actor. A friend of mine remarked that Hoffman was one of those rare performers who could make any film worth watching. I'm not sure I'm ready to go that far — it would require rewatching Along Came Polly, which I'm not anxious to do — but in essence, it's a fair assessment of Hoffman's talent. Even in movies that were a mixed bag, Hoffman was the real thing. I don't much like Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, for instance, but I love Hoffman's Lancaster Dodd.

I guess the first place I really took notice of Hoffman was in Anderson's Boogie Nights in 1997. Considering that his character is part of a large ensemble of performers, all doing stellar work, it's frankly remarkable that this is what I think of as my real introduction to Hoffman. That was cemented by his performance in Anderson's Magnolia two tears later — another ensemble piece, but one where he and Julianne Moore were the clear standouts in the cast. Other characters intrigued, but their turn got under your skin and broke your heart with their pure humanity.

Again in a large cast and in a supporting role, Hoffman is who and what I most remember at this point in Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous. I remember set-pieces that he wasn't in, sure — you're not likely to forget the "Tiny Dancer" scene — but where the characters are concerned, it's Hoffman's Lester Bangs. From there, it feels in retrospect like a string of unbroken great movies, but, of course, it isn't. It is, however, a string of indelible performances.

At the top of the list for me is his work from 2008 and 2009 — Synecdoche, New York, Doubt, and Pirate Radio. Of these three, Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York is the most complex. Certainly, it's the hardest to penetrate, the least user friendly. The levels it works on and the layering of its untraditional narrative are astonishing. Without Hoffman at its center, holding it in place, the film wouldn't work at all.

At the other end of the spectrum is Richard Curtis' Pirate Radio — released in a different, longer, better cut outside the U.S. as The Boat That Rocked. This is not a deep film in the usual sense of the word. However, it contains what is perhaps Hoffman's most lovable performance — and yet it's a performance that works because of the humanity he invests in the character. Strangely, it's that performance and one particular scene that has kept creeping into my mind since Hoffman's death was announced. If you don't know the film, it's a scene that comes very near the end where Hoffman's character, The Count, is giving what looks like his last broadcast from the sinking pirate radio ship. In it he notes, "Nothing important dies tonight — just a few ugly guys on a crappy ship. The only sadness tonight is that in future years, there'll be so many fantastic songs that it will not be our privilege to play, but believe you me, they will still be written, they will still be sung, and they will be the wonder of the world." Hoffman's legacy is already the wonder of the world. The sadness is that he had so many more fantastic songs in him that we will never witness.


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