Philip Seymour Hoffman's Great Gift: Understatement

The late actor could make unforgettable a gesture as tiny as flipping his sunglasses.
Hoffman in Magnolia. (New Line Cinema)

Writing my end-of-the-year prizes a month and a half ago, I included among them “The ‘Philip Seymour Hoffman Makes Any Movie Better’ Award,” for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. It was jokey commendation, of course, but not really a joke. Of the nearly three dozen performances of Hoffman’s that I have witnessed onscreen, I can’t think of a single one that failed to elevate the film in question. I had assumed that there would be many more such performances to come, and it is devastating to learn otherwise. The last actor of his caliber—though not his accomplishment—to exit life so prematurely (and, alas, in such similar fashion) was Heath Ledger.

There are great actors and there are prolific actors, but the great ones aren’t typically prolific, and the prolific ones are seldom great. As Derek Thompson notes in his moving, thoughtful tribute, Hoffman took on roles large and small, in films high-, middle-, and low-brow, and he excelled regardless of the occasion. As great as he was in starring roles such as Capote or the underappreciated Synecdoche, New York, he seemed more comfortable stealing a movie from the margins, the consummate character-actor-as-star.

Hoffman was not averse to offering a slice of ham when appropriate, as with his indelible turns as Freddy Miles in The Talented Mr. Ripley and Lester Bangs in Almost Famous and Gust Avrakotos in Charlie Wilson’s War (how I suddenly want to see that movie again). But perhaps more remarkable still was his extraordinary confidence in underplaying a role, in stripping it of customary artifice and laying it bare like a twitching nerve. I’m thinking now of his extraordinary turn in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. But if anything, his knack for understatement was most evident in less serious roles: as Owen Davian in Mission: Impossible III, for instance, or Plutarch Heavensbee in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. These were goofy, hyper-theatrical roles, the kind most actors take on specifically so that they can indulge in a bit of gleeful scene chewing. But Hoffman found in them something altogether different, something spare and quiet, and in so doing seemed to tilt both movies fascinatingly away from their familiar trajectories.

I saw Hoffman in several films in the mid-to-late 1990s—memorably in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, less so in Scent of a Woman and Nobody’s Fool—but it wasn’t until Anderson’s next film, the flawed masterpiece Magnolia, that I truly took notice of him as an actor. The movie is almost literally overflowing with great performances, but Hoffman’s is perhaps the greatest of all: artless, intimate, wonderfully human. The moment in the film that introduces Hoffman’s character, hospice nurse Phil Parma, has always stuck with me to an extraordinary degree: He opens the door to the house in Encino where he’s caring for a dying Jason Robards, and with a deft flick, raises the lenses of his flip-up sunglasses. I have no idea why this simple gesture has for years been the first image I associate with Hoffman, but it seems somehow apt: a tiny detail that he managed to get sublimely, unforgettably right. As he takes his leave, it’s that entrance that remains on my mind.

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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