The brilliance of Philip Seymour Hoffman

Remembering the immensely talented actor's mastery of his craft

A favorite pastime of critics and serious filmgoers, perhaps the most idiotic and fruitless one, is to complain about how bad the movies have gotten. The complaint is meaningless, because no matter how "bad" the movies get, there are always actors. There's no such thing as a golden age of movie acting: Actors today are capable of stoking the same wonder and reaching the same depths of feeling as those who worked 20, 50, or 80 years ago. In a week like this, when we've lost Philip Seymour Hoffman, that sense of continuity feels like a lifeline.

To watch Hoffman — in the movies and, if you were fortunate enough, onstage — was pure pleasure. He was an extremely serious performer, an eternal student of that pretentious-sounding thing we call the actor's craft. Yet technique melted under his touch; he made acting look like nothing at all, but also like something magnificent. He was magical and solid at once, a bracingly physical actor — impish, whiskery, slightly rotund — who looked as if he might have stepped from the pages of Chaucer, though he also radiated lightness.

To watch him as the laid-back, advice-dispensing Lester Bangs in Almost Famous, or the joyously, theatrically disgruntled Gust Avrokotos in Charlie Wilson's War, or the lovesick Scotty J. in Boogie Nights, is to see some of the most powerful yet delicate human feelings — of disappointment, of longing, of grudging acceptance that our flaws can actually be kind of groovy — made corporeal. Watching him as the capable, deeply empathetic caretaker Phil Parma in Magnolia, you can almost feel the sensitivity in the pads of his fingers.

Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Photo by Murray Close - © 2013 - Lionsgate
Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

I was lucky enough to see Hoffman onstage twice, opposite John C. Reilly in True West, and as James Tyrone Jr. in Long Day's Journey into Night; his heart was in the theater, and if anything, his presence on stage was even more magnetic than in the movies. But the movies, of course, will always be the best, most lasting record of his work. It's impossible to touch on all the performances, in big films and small ones, in which Hoffman glowed. He was great far more often than he was merely good. And he was never bad.

A few years back, I made a case for him as one of the sexiest actors alive, and I'll always think of him that way. Yes, I had the hots for him. It's the moviegoer's job to fall in love with actors, and if critics are first and foremost moviegoers, they must be able to fall in love with actors, too. It's terrible that he's gone, but how wonderful that he was ever here. In Almost Famous, his Lester Bangs gives worldly advice over the phone to the terminally uncool aspiring rock scribe played by Patrick Fugit.

"We are uncool," he tells the kid. "Women will always be a problem for guys like us. Most of the great art in the world is about that very problem.... That's what great art is about. Guilt and longing, and love disguised as sex and sex disguised as love." Hoffman took a problem, or a potential problem — the problem of uncoolness — and turned it into art. He made it all look so easy, but everything he gave us was built to last. He was cool, in the warmest possible way.

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kurt124 topcommenter

Great Actor.  But not "Brilliant" by any means.  Stop misusing words.   You lib progs are always idolizing.   


I am not all that familiar with Hoffman.  However, I view his death as an absolutely horrible way to exit our world.  Yet, I also question why since going into Afghanistan the poppy production in Afghanistan has quintupled?  For the novice, poppy seed becomes heroin when manufactured properly.  Our government attempts to take a hammer to certain forms of drug use while using a thumb tack to go after other forms.  Illicit drugs are BIG MONEY, and I suspect the very people who are empowered to regulate and control those illicit drugs are at the end of the spigot of financial fortune and opportunity.  Europe controls its drug use through its pharmacies.  After 30+ years of drumbeating, we still cannot control it.  There is a silent, underlying nefarious reason for this.  Just sayin'.


well, RIP;  and not to say anything negative about a guy who is gone...

 but to comment on this headline: he wasn't "brilliant."   He was acting.

    Step back a little from the fawning and the worship.....

    it's a trade more than an art, and as everyone knew, until the last 35 years or so, not  a wholly honorable one........

again, all sympathies to the man and his loved ones.....

  Those who teach our young, heal our bodies, care for the weak and failing,...and write realy good stuff.......there  lies brilliance. 


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