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.

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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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