Remembering Philip Seymour Hoffman

You don’t really expect much to stand out on Super Bowl Sunday that isn’t football related, and yet yesterday felt defined by the news that Philip Seymour Hoffman had died. For anyone that’s a fan of film, it was truly heartbreaking news, something that stunned and saddened me instantly. Hoffman was certainly a modern acting giant, the sort of actor that lent some legitimacy to every project he did (there are very few duds on his resume, as far as I’ve seen). In considering his career, I tried to remember what my first exposure to his work would have been (I’d heard about Capote but I think it might’ve been Mission: Impossible III). But I soon found myself drowning in memories of great performances of all different kinds, while also being reminded of all the movies of his I’ve yet to see. So when I woke up today, I felt compelled to revisit a couple of great performances of his, performances that show the great range he had, and the unique vulnerability that was a constant in his whole career.

Color me surprised that the first thing I thought of while thinking about Hoffman was his role as Gust Avrakotos in Charlie Wilson’s War, specifically his terrific introductory scene (above). By far the best part of the movie, Hoffman brought a new sort of blustery, short-fused vigor to his regular role as the put-upon insecure everyman, to tremendous result. While much a louder and more sarcastic character than you’re used to seeing Hoffman play, at his core Gust is very matter-of-fact and resigned. He guards himself throughout with a dry sense of humor, trying to keep himself detached from the possibility that this crazy covert scheme might actually work. Hoffman brings a great deal of heart to Gust’s bitter, sarcastic, slightly paranoid voice of reason, and peppers the movie with little touches that make him all the deeper. The little frown and shake of the head when Charlie (Tom Hanks) first calls him “Gus” instead of “Gust”, the half-hearted hope when he propositions Joanne (Julia Roberts), the prophetic urgency in the end when he urges Charlie to keep helping Afghanistan, as if he knows exactly where things are headed there. Hoffman struck a perfect balance for a role that required him to be both larger-than-life and bitterly resigned all at once, and he walked that line brilliantly.

In perhaps the most Catholic movie ever made, Doubt, Hoffman’s performance as Father Flynn is at the complete opposite end of the spectrum from Gust. Unlike Gust, whose armor is always up, Flynn is an open, bleeding heart, someone who is driven by total sincerity and as a result becomes incredibly hurt and defensive in response to the allegations of Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep). In the scene directly after he is accused, Flynn delivers a homily about gossip (above), and Hoffman turns perfectly and understandably from the compassionate, likable person we’ve seen thus far into a statue of barely-contained fury, his teary eyes the only indicator of the pain he’s feeling. That pain is completely exposed in the subsequent scene between Flynn and Sister James (Amy Adams), a very subdued sequence where Hoffman displays the same sort of passion and conviction as in Charlie Wilson’s War, but in a much sadder and quieter way. All the way to the end, Hoffman plays the ambiguity of Flynn beautifully, making it easy to see Flynn either as a pedophile driven by his compassion or just as a loving man being persecuted by the moral rigidity of one old nun. To be able to make us like and admire and feel for such a man, while also leaving open the possibility that he’s hiding something sinister, is yet another terrific high-wire act that Hoffman performed perfectly.

There are, of course, many other highlights in Hoffman’s career, including ones that I remember well, ones that I don’t so much and ones that I’ve yet to see. Which ones I’ll watch next I’m not quite sure, but what I am sure of is that I will be seeing more of Mr. Hoffman in the very near future, because more than anything else this past day has reminded me that I’m always in the mood for his talent. It’s sad to think that we won’t be seeing any more of it, and disappointing to me as an aspiring filmmaker that I’ll never get the chance to see my words brought to beautiful life by someone as great as he was. Though, as his Charlie Wilson’s War collaborator Aaron Sorkin pointed out:

“He was a wonderful man and my generation’s greatest actor, but three young kids lost their father and that’s all that matters.”

RIP to one of the greats.

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