RIP Philip Seymour Hoffman
James R | On 02, Feb 2014
In 2013, Philip Seymour Hoffman starred alongside Christopher Walken and Catherine Keener in A Late Quartet. It was an unusual, interesting film – a drama about a string quartet that treated classical music with rare seriousness and subtle humanity. In it, Hoffman plays Robert, a second violinist who, deep down, wanted to be the first violin.
His desire threatens to upset the whole ensemble, but for the sake of the art, he suffers in the number two seat. The group rehearse Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14, opus 131, which is designed to be performed without pause, regardless of whether life interferes. After Mark Ivanir’s first violin leads the tune with a romantic flourish, Hoffman’s part enters, bringing a level of melancholy and beauty to the piece that introduces rich depth you never could have expected. The whole thing transforms into something unrecognisable yet somehow familiar.
It’s easy to draw a comparison between Hoffman’s character in A Late Quartet and his career, but it’s worth doing nonetheless. A performer who attracted attention in Scent of a Woman, he proceeded to impress throughout the 1990s in Boogie Nights and Magnolia, the latter exemplifying the complexity he could convey in a few short scenes. In The Talented Mr. Ripley, he revelled in the repulsiveness of the womanising Freddie, but it was the 2000s that saw this second lead man finally step into the spotlight. Not just in Along Came Polly, but in Capote.
Shedding half a foot to play the diminutive author, Hoffman excelled, exuding weariness, confidence, delusion and deception with an unsettling calm. He won an Oscar for it in 2005. Ironically, only then did The Academy start to reward his background talents, nominating him for turns in The Master, Charlie Wilson’s War and Doubt – it is telling that he was nominated for three Best Supporting Actor Oscars and just one for Best Actor. Philip Seymour Hoffman was a chameleon’s chameleon, a giant who could disappear into the tiniest role – but could still bring a terrifying, tear-filled conviction to a larger-than-life villain in Mission: Impossible 3, which saw him viciously kick the crap out of Tom Cruise for 10 minutes.
Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York saw Hoffman swallowed altogether in the tale of an artist who dedicated years to crafting an autobiographical theatre installation. The art grew until it became him – a performance within a performance that saw the supporting actor playing himself shrinking into the backdrop of his own existence. You can see why the project appealed. It was torture, but breathtaking torture; the same torture that was seen every time Hoffman stepped onto the screen, sacrificing himself to the pursuit of becoming something else entirely, which he carried on without pause.
The result was always something unrecognisable yet familiar. That was Hoffman’s skill; not just to be someone else, but to be another human. He made unusual, interesting choices, never going the obvious route, be it a chamber piece about musicians or a non-award-friendly role in M:I-3. Unlike his violinist Robert, he wasn’t in it to be the lead. He was in it for the art, an actor keener to play Iago than Hamlet. It;s not that he stole scenes; it’s that he didn’t steal them. He made them better – a generous performer who made everyone else in them better too.
Throughout his career, he could charm as a cult leader, stun as a concert musician, or beat up Tom Cruise with understated realism – he could probably even do it with a stringed instrument and still make it believable.
Put simply, Philip Seymour Hoffman was one of the greatest actors of modern cinema. A second violinist of first rate quality. Today, the orchestra is sorely missing a part.