Variety’s Justin Chang Remembers Philip Seymour Hoffman: A Master of His Screen Craft
“You’re aberrated. You’ve wandered from the proper path, haven’t you? These problems you have … you seem so familiar to me.”
These words were spoken by Philip Seymour Hoffman in what would turn out to be one of his last screen performances, as the charismatic and conflicted cult leader Lancaster Dodd in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master.” They are the words of a self-styled leader and father figure, trying to reassure a man in whom he sees a lost, youthful trace of his own self, and that sympathy-for-the-devil quality is partly what makes the character so layered and seductive. It’s a magnificent performance, perhaps the actor’s greatest — one in which Hoffman, with his stout frame and arch, declamatory speech patterns, suddenly seemed possessed in body and spirit by Orson Welles.
Rather than giving us a one-note L. Ron Hubbard caricature, Hoffman invested Dodd with authority, empathy, curiosity, passion, hunger and, despite his lofty, manipulative way with language, an almost naive sort of emotional transparency. You knew, watching this dangerous harvester of souls, that you shouldn’t trust him, but Hoffman’s conviction inspired not just belief but a peculiar sort of affection. “Monstrous and maniacal though Dodd may be,” I noted in my review of “The Master,” “he’s a character to love.”
It’s not something I necessarily expected to write about an actor who, over the course of an astonishing career cut devastatingly short, made an art of playing such aggressively, defiantly unlovable characters — rarely more so than in his numerous collaborations with Anderson. My earliest memory of Hoffman on film is his turn as Scotty, a gay porn-crew member in 1997’s “Boogie Nights,” weeping and murmuring “I’m a fuckin’ idiot” over and over to himself after his fumbling aborted pass at Dirk Diggler. He followed that up with a far more extreme turn in Todd Solondz’s “Happiness”; as an office drone who spends his free time masturbating during prank calls to strangers, Hoffman once again excelled at finding pathos in the pathetic, pinpointing the loneliness and desperation that lay at the heart of the character’s perversion.
Watching him then — with his ruddy complexion, stocky build and a wild blond mass of hair that made vanity impossible — it was hard not to recoil from the sheer unloveliness of the actor’s appearance. The fascination of Hoffman’s early screen performances is that he didn’t seem especially interested in deflecting what is often politely referred to as an actor’s lack of “conventional good looks.” On the contrary, he seemed bent on magnifying it, burrowing ever deeper and darker, as though exploring the outer reaches of his own limitless capacity to repel. It felt nothing if not personal, and Hoffman himself acknowledged this unflattering impulse in a 2011 interview with the Guardian, in which he noted, “I had insecurities and fears like everybody does, and I got over it. But I was interested in the parts of me that struggled with those things.”
Fortunately, Hoffman’s formidable range and classically honed technique went beyond twisted, lumpen sad sacks, rich and strange though they were. He had a breakthrough year in 1999, bringing vigor and vinegary wit to the part of an aging pre-op transsexual in Joel Schumacher’s “Flawless,” while making major impressions in two star-packed prestige pictures. As a far-from-innocent bystander named Freddie Miles in Anthony Minghella’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” he stole the movie right out from under its cast — and considering it starred Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law and Cate Blanchett, that was grand larceny. Hoffman couldn’t have been more different, or more sympathetic, as a gentle, soft-spoken hospital nurse in Anderson’s “Magnolia,” a beacon of decency in a sea of raw, untamed humanity.