Philip Seymour Hoffman in ‘Doubt’
Above all the deservedly glorious tributes to him, there is that deep sense that Philip Seymour Hoffman betrayed us by dying.
Those who admire his formidable craft as an actor feel almost a personal ownership to it. It was as if that Hoffman was not a truly great actor on his own but he was so because of us.
Think of his talent as a work of that rare art that we all want to own without sharing it with the next guy. There is something to anything great that makes us feel that it is speaking to us individually and exclusively. Hoffman was loaded with that.
From whatever I have seen of Hoffman’s body of work (65 credits as per IMDB)—“Capote”, “Charlie Wilson’s War”, “Doubt”. “Along Came Polly”, “Mission Impossible 3”, “The Ides of March”, “Scent of a Woman”, “Synechdoche, New York”, “Before the Devils Knows You’re Dead” and partly “The Master”—there was never anything that Hoffman was not fully committed to.
You could pick almost any moment from Hoffman’s roles and you would find him giving his best. And when he did not, even then he was better than most others. Even his hamming, which he very rarely did, was better than many actors’ acting.
I have just chosen two random scenes to prove my point that Hoffman never fell below a certain standard of greatness. He just couldn’t. It should not surprise anyone that many thought he was the greatest actor of his generation. although I do not understand what that quantification really means.
In “Charlie Wilson’s War” he portrays Gust Avrakotos, a surly and bitter CIA agent feeling wronged by the agency. Check out the scene in the video below where his colleague thinks Gust is there to apologize. Look at Hoffman’s bearing and demeanor. They match perfectly with his sense of disbelief at what his colleague is saying. This is not necessarily a great scene as great history-making scenes go but Hoffman makes it truly memorable by giving it just the right amount of passion. As he walks out of the office and walks past the secretary, look for the dramatic change of his mood and intonation. He lets you know subtly that what he did inside the office was just a show.
Or take this scene from “Doubt” where he plays Father Brendan Flynn whose special affections for a student arouses suspicions about his motivation. Look at the trajectory of the scene where Hoffman, feeling unfairly scrutinized and targeted by Meryl Streep (Sister Aloysius Beauvier), goes from angry rebuff to defensiveness to near surrender in a matter of a minute or so. Notice how when he can no longer feel the power to defend himself he gulps ever so slightly and asks Streep, “Have you never done anything wrong?”
It is a measure of Hoffman’s talent that even after 65 films and some terrific stage performances his admirers feel unsatisfied and underserved. Most think there was so much more that was locked up inside him and his death interrupted a virtuoso in the middle something even more spectacular.