Philip Seymour Hoffman was an actor, but “acting” didn’t seem to quite encompass what he did. Others acted, often closely to the alternate definition common to everyday life: “acting confused”, “acting innocent”, “acting surprised”, “acting like x“, an imitation of someone else’s emotions or moods or quirks, but nevertheless a lie. Hoffman never felt like he was playing someone; he seemed to become them, to put not just the moment being captured onscreen of his character’s life, but the decades of life the person lived preceding it. The weariness, the sadness, the neediness (and yes, often with his roles, the creepiness), never scanned like a put on, a cloak to be taken off once the cameras stopped rolling. These facets felt as though they were built from years and years of turmoil and strife, set to explode at any moment.
Far too often these performances too place in movies miles below his skill, like a masterpiece hung up in a burned out shack. But the distance between him and the garbage around him made his work that much more impressive, a distinct seismic event in what are mostly dreary, vanilla plots and uninspired support work. Fostering this special alchemy in sterile conditions showed as well just how much this meant to him, how little the quality of the rest of the movie was allowed to affect the quality of his own work. It’s probably not worth revisiting the likes of Patch Adams, Mission Impossible III, or Along Came Polly, but for the explosive energy Hoffman brings to every scene he is in. As an uptight med student, a cold-blooded psychopath, and a lovable fuck up, respectively, he shows not just the amazing range he has, but also just how stiff his far more famous counterparts–Robin Williams, Tom Cruise, and Ben Stiller–look in comparison, and how little belief one can put in the performances they are putting on.
This apprehending of another person’s life showed tiny crevices caused by years of erosion that might be missed if you didn’t pay attention. His best role, as Lancaster Dodd in The Master, is almost all sculpting by the seas of time. A warm, benevolent leader of a cult, he nonetheless possesses an air of mystery. Dodd is “open” but in a way that hides his true character, his inviting you into a persona that is what he wants you to think but isn’t the actual him. Hoffman carries this off with such delicate precision that the compassionate, emotionally-available facade doesn’t become apparent until near the end of the movie.
A well-meaning follower asks about a difference in verbiage between Dodd’s first book and newly published second book, a inquiry he quickly deflects with a claim about what possibilities the new words hold; when she presses the matter Dodd explodes swiftly, fantastically, and embarrassingly, for only a moment, before quickly reverting back to his cool self. Up to that point it appeared the leader was drinking his own Kool-Aid as well, and that his calmly sageism was not affectation but the real person. The questioning, though, showed a crack, and revealed a bit of the self-doubting, secretive, cunning personality under his cuddly outward manner.
This complexity is what made Hoffman a master himself, that he could give so much breadth and feel so lived-in with characters he plays for all of an hour onscreen, and to put so much just under the surface that we have to unpack as the movie goes along. Dodd appeared to be convinced of his own ideas, and it was completely believable when he blew up earlier–once at Freddie, and once at an unbeliever–that his outrage was from the questioning of the foundations of his movement. But the simple difference found between him and a follower, on a matter the follower just wanted clarified, showed that the fulcrum from which these outbursts sprung was his ego. In another instance, or rather the general aura of the role, is the answer he provides to the question, “how do people end up in cults like this?” Hoffman does the delicate dance of not wanting people to follow him, but wanting people to want to follow him, with an elixir of charisma, confidence, withholding, and warmth. People don’t follow this preacher because he’s not a preacher, but the most cunning salesman you will ever meet.
When we lose an actor of Hoffman’s abilities, it is tempting to unpack the “under the surface” acting as actually under the surface of the character, the movie, and the plot, and that we are cutting to the bone of the actual person playing the role. Specifically with the characters in Hoffman’s oeuvre, you want to see the suffering and alienation as things Hoffman brought with him to the screen, not learned to emulate. While there are a number of good pieces on that subject–Richard Brody’s excellent piece for The New Yorker Online comes to mind–I’m in no position, psychoanalytically, personality-wise or otherwise, to assume any of these things. What I can speak of, though is what Hoffman offered us on the screen and on the stage. It was a gift, one that we see only a few times a generation, and whatever it ended up costing him to deliver it, one still feels greedy having given so little in return.