Philip Seymour Hoffman: The Greatest Actor of His Generation

The actor, discovered dead in his apartment at 46, was Hollywood's patron saint of schlubs, losers, and outcasts.
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Famous deaths invite hyperbole. The news that Philip Seymour Hoffman was discovered dead today in an apartment bathroom, with a syringe sticking out of his arm, seems like an occasion to overreact with some exaggerated summary of his career—something like "most talented and kaleidoscopic actor of his time."

Except, in this case, the compliment isn't hyperbolic at all. It's just an accurate description, as true yesterday as it is today. And the competition isn't even that close. 

The first thing about Philip Seymour Hoffman—that is, the first thing most audiences saw—is that he looked unremarkable, even boring. He had a hangdog countenance, often sliced with the swoop of his receding blond mane, with small, firm eyes. He wasn't strikingly handsome, nor strikingly unhandsome, neither thin nor obese, not blessed with any distinguishing gosh-wow feature that would make somebody watching an early performance in Twister or The Big Lebowski exclaim, "I think we've found our next Brando." Instead of standing out in these early films, he stood within them—gauging the pace and tone of the action around him and blending in so delicately that it's not uncommon for even Hoffman fanatics to look back on his career and think, I forgot he was in that.

It's easy to forget because there is so much to remember. Even the shortlist is long: The Hunger Games: Catching FireThe MasterMoneyballThe Ides of March, Doubt, Synecdoche, New YorkCharlie Wilson's WarBefore the Devil Knows You're DeadMission: Impossible IIICapoteAlong Came PollyAlmost FamousThe Talented Mr. RipleyMagnoliaBoogie NightsAnd those are just the movies I remember seeing. The list doesn't include his tremendous career in theater, a stage where his talents were arguably even more kinetic

The diversity of that list—biopics, romantic comedies, dark dramas, action franchises—offers an appreciation for Hoffman's range. But to truly understand it, you have to see the man in action. Here is our first scene, a talker from Aaron Sorkin's Charlie Wilson's War, where Hoffman plays a maverick CIA agent bitching out his boss, with a voice that flips from wry guttural to grizzly-bear roar.  

Now a scene from Capote, for which Hoffman won the Academy Award for Best Actor. Nothing is the same—the voice, the face, the instincts. This isn’t a talking scene. It's a listening scene—and it's masterful. It is, as Hoffman's director Mike Nichols once observed, as if he has rearranged his molecules and reassembled his smallest gestures to form an unidentifiably different human. Acting this good isn't instructive: It's just a lesson in what most other actors will never be able to do.

Finally, out of nowhere, here is the same Oscar-award-winning actor hamming up a pick-up basketball scene in Along Came Polly, as if suddenly possessed by the heavenly spirit of Chris Farley.

An actor this good at talking should not be so good at silence. An actor so good at silence shouldn't be this good at talking. In the delicate art of negotiating rest stops, commanding crescendos, and unleashing fortes, there wasn't a more precise conductor of performances than Hoffman. 

We can see, in most actors' greatest roles, a reflection of what we imagine to be their truest self. Jack Nicholson charms as the platonic ideal of a rake, or Al Pacino as the embodiment of bottled and uncorked rage, or Robert DeNiro, as power cut with insecurity (or insecurity cut with power). This sort of mental experiment fails entirely when applied to Hoffman. In Charlie Wilson's War and Moneyball, where he tosses in supporting-role gems, he is a wall of quiet (and then not-so-quiet) intimidation. He positions himself broodingly behind his stomach, as if it's an office desk. And yet his only Oscar came from playing Truman Capote, an elfin writer, tiny as a human figurine. To watch and believe Hoffman as Capote is to participate in the purest form of theater: This could never be, and yet it is.

Daniel Day-Lewis, the most decorated male actor of his time, has astonished as America's most famous president and most ruthless fictional oil titan. But he excels at playing superlatives—at commanding the aristocratic awe of characters who are bigger than life. Day-Lewis playing a game of pick-up basketball in a romantic comedy isn't a movie scene. It's a discarded SNL skit. It's a bad joke. He would never do it, and nobody would ever want to see it. Hoffman was different. He could puff himself up and play larger than life, but his specialty was to find the quiet dignity in life-sized characters—losers, outcasts, and human marginalia.

It's not clear that there were roles Philip Seymour Hoffman could not do. He had so many lives within him—and more, undiscovered and unseen. Those are the lives, aside from his own, we've now lost. "For me, acting is torturous," Hoffman told the New York Times in 2008, "and it’s torturous because you know it’s a beautiful thing. I was young once, and I said, That’s beautiful and I want that. Wanting it is easy, but trying to be great—well, that’s absolutely torturous."

He continued: "In the end, I’m grateful to feel something so deeply, and I’m also grateful that it’s over. And that’s my life.”

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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