Writer_Sarah van Binsbergen
No one could play human ugliness as beautiully as Philip Seymour Hoffman. Sarah van Binsbergen on why the actor, discovered dead in his appartment last weekend, was one of the greatest of our time.
The sudden death of Philip Seymour Hoffman is a great loss. The actor, who died at 46, suspectedly from a drug-overdose, is praised and remembered by many as one of the greatest – if not the greatest – actor of our time. It is common to react to the death of a celebrity with hyperbolic statements, but in this case, the praise, though overwhelming, is completely justified.
‘A true kaleidoscopic actor’, Derek Thompson wrote in the Atlantic, stressing the scope of Hoffmans talent. His versatility was remarkable. He easily switched between blockbusters and independent films and between lead and supporting roles. Whether he was the centre of attention or just made a short cameo, his presence alone would make any film better. He could play larger than life characters, like his oscar-winning role as the famous writer in Capote. But he was just as remarkable in humble, intimate roles like male nurse Phil Pharma in Magnolia.
But most of all, Philip Seymour Hoffman had a talent for the non-heroic, the uncool, and the pathetic. His most memorable characters are losers, marginal and often pitiful figures. Take Scotty J in Boogie Nights: a bit slow, self-deprivating, and shamefully in love. Music critic and self-proclaimed ‘uncool guy’ Lester Bangs in Almost Famous. Or pervert Allen in Happiness, a sweating, heavy-breathing schlub addicted to making sexually abusive phone calls.
Hoffman did not judge the pathetic and painful sides of his characters, nor did he try to elevate them. He simply confronted the audience with their existence, and was not afraid to humiliate himself on the way. As A.O. Scott wrote in the New York Times: ‘The point was to make us believe them and to recognize in them — in him — a truth about ourselves that we might otherwise have preferred to avoid.’ Because he played these characters so beautifully, you were reminded of the uncomfortable fact that there is a little bit of Scotty J or even Allen, in us all.
In The Master, his fifth collaboration with director Paul Thomas Anderson, his portrayal of human flaws reached it’s greatest depth. Lancaster Dodd, loosely based on Scientology Church-founder L. Ron Hubbard, could have easily become one-dimensional. A charismatic charlatan on the one hand, or a fanatic, delusional fool on the other. Hoffman’s Dodd is both these things, and more: blatantly arrogant and painfully insecure, a tiran and someone capable of great compassion. And most of all a vulnerable man, desperate for love. This was Hoffman at his best, not exhausting the flaws nor the beauty of his character, but stressing the constant conflict between both.
‘One of the joys of being an actor’, Hoffman said, ‘is that you get to demystify what it means to be a human being.’ He knew how to do this like no other. Although the mystery is never solved, it is at the heart of what he brought to his performances. Flawed, complex, and never finished, his characters were always deeply and uncomfortably human.
Tonight, The Goldsmiths Filmwatching Society will honour Philip Seymour Hoffman with a screening of Capote. 19:10 pm at NAB LG02.