"Success isn’t what makes you happy. It really isn’t. Success is doing what makes you happy and doing good work and hopefully having a fruitful life. If I’ve felt like I’ve done good work, that makes me happy. The success part of it is all gravy."
- Philip Seymour Hoffman
Ask anyone and they'll be able to tell you the first Philip Seymour Hoffman movie they saw. And chances are they probably didn't even know he was in it at the time. That was his greatest gift as an actor. The ability to completely disappear into a role. Calling an actor a "chameleon" seems almost commonplace, but here's a guy who actually was. Versatile enough to go from playing Truman Capote in Capote (for which he won an Academy Award) to Oakland A's manager Art Howe in Moneyball. From one role to the next, supporting or lead, he often mixed it up so much that at times he would almost seem physically unrecognizable. At first we knew the face but couldn't place the name. He was "that guy." But even then we knew he was great, and frequently even better than the material in which he would appear. That changed in the late 90's with Happiness, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Boogie Nights and The Big Lebowski and then there was no turning back.
With some actors it's difficult to pinpoint exactly what makes them unique but that was never the case with Hoffman, whose talent lay in making you feel that every character he played could have easily been one of us. No matter how extreme it never felt extreme or unreal. He didn't look like your typical actor and didn't perform like one, slipping so thoroughly under the skin of his characters that alternating between leading man and invaluable supporting player seemed only natural. I first really took notice of him as rock critic Lester Bangs in Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous, where he took a mythic figure we've mostly only heard and read about and humanized him as the film's moral compass with only a handful of scenes. It was one of the first of many outsized roles he'd take on, playing characters with an unquenchable anger and intensity.
Watching him as volatile "Mattress Man" Dean Trumbell in Punch-Drunk Love almost scary and he just storms through Charlie Wilson's War, blowing everyone else off the screen as maverick CIA agent Gust Avrakotos to earn his second Oscar nomination. If there's any movie of his that feels like it needs a revisiting it's that one. But beneath the blustery exterior of those characters there was always a vulnerability that would be put to good use when he was called upon to play more introspective roles, like a socially awkward teacher helplessly infatuated with his student in Spike Lee's post-9/11 meditation 25th Hour. Playing a schlub hiding under a Yankees cap, it might be his most muted, captivating everyman performance. On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, he completely stole 2009's Pirate Radio (AKA The Boat That Rocked) as crazy DJ "The Count," upholding the Hoffman tradition of infusing a utility player with a greater sense of importance and humanity than was likely intended.
If everyone remembers the first Hoffman film they saw then they'll also remember the first titles that sprang to mind at the news of his passing. For me, it was his two most challenging. Synecdoche, New York and The Master, both of which still await the respect and revaluation they so richly deserve from both critics and audiences. The former's themes of mortality now seem especially eerie and prophetic, begging the question of whether it will get easier or more difficult to rewatch because of it. With the latter he gives us his latest and greatest creation in charismatic, egomaniacal religious leader Lancaster Dodd, navigating the choppy waters of a messy, controversial subject to dig for something deeper and more powerful than anyone anticipated.
Recently, when beginning to look back and draft top ten lists of my favorite films of recent years it was hardly surprising to discover Hoffman was all over it, nor was it a revelation to notice how many movies of his I own and frequently return to. The biggest compliment is that the collection was completely unintentional. He was just that good and that prolific. Nearly everything he made holds up and does so because of him. Few could argue his commitment to his craft, whether on screen, on stage or even behind the camera. We knew this last week and we still know now. No reevaluation of his legacy is necessary. We lost the best actor of his generation at the top of his game. It doesn't matter how he died. It matters he's no longer here. For movie fans it's an immeasurable loss as we're left with a giant void that future PSH performances could have filled. But he's also left us and future fans a brilliant filmography to appreciate and analyze for decades to come.