Philip Seymour Hoffman: an appreciation

Philip Seymour Hoffman: an appreciation

Philip Seymour Hoffman was confirmed dead the morning of Feb. 2 in his Manhattan apartment.

The Oscar-winning actor, 46, died of an apparent drug overdose. Beyond the people who knew him personally, he will be missed by legions of film lovers who regarded him as one of the finest actors of his time.

Hoffman’s last onscreen performance was Plutarch Heavensbee, the lead gamesmaker in “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.” His scenes, though few and far between, crackle with menacing energy and underlying empathy, foreshadowing the climactic revelation that he (spoiler alert) is fighting against the Capitol despite his position within it.

That movie, the highest-grossing of 2013, featured several excellent lead performances and a wide array of supporting delights, but Hoffman stands out, as he often does. Without doing anything particularly remarkable or attention-grabbing – no monologues or outbursts – he commands the screen with a nearly indescribable presence that transcends “paycheck” acting. “Catching Fire” was an unusually high-profile movie for him, but he never condescends to what could have been perceived as a cynical cash grab. His performance adds credibility and lent the final reveal an extra layer of complication.

Hoffman’s name on a list of credits was always encouraging. When he appeared as the villain in the third “Mission: Impossible” movie, people stood up and took notice. That movie’s first scene, in which Tom Cruise’s CIA operative Ethan Hunt cowers in front of his captor Phillip Davian (Hoffman), could have been laughably absurd in the hands of a lesser talent. With Hoffman leading the charge, the movie had a hook: the unbeatable man of action against the unfathomable force of nature.

Just a few months after the release of “Mission: Impossible III,” Hoffman delivered his most lauded performance, at least in terms of awards. As the title character in director Bennett Miller’s “Capote,” Hoffman raised the pitch of his voice and changed his wardrobe, but his performance was far more than cosmetic. His Capote had an enormous heart and a one-track mind, but the movie neither villainized him for obsessing over a convicted murderer nor lionized him for trying to find the humanity in the inhumane. In its way, Hoffman’s Capote is as terrifying as the unambiguously evil man at the center of “Mission: Impossible III.” Crucially, though, he never lets you forget the timid man beyond the veil of pomposity and literary significance.

The rest of Hoffman’s filmography reads like an eclectic list of great movies of all shapes and sizes. “The Big Lebowski.” “Doubt.” “Punch-Drunk Love.” “Moneyball.” “Synechdoche, New York.” “The Invention of Lying.” “The Ides of March.”

Yet another tragedy of this man’s untimely passing is the work he’s left behind. Plutarch Heavensbee plays a significant role in the third “Hunger Games” book – one can only imagine he will have a presence of some kind in the upcoming “Mockingjay” movies. His appearance in “God’s Pocket,” the directorial debut of “Mad Men” actor John Slattery, just debuted at Sundance. A few weeks ago, he appeared at the Television Critics’ Association press tour to promote his new Showtime TV series “Happy-ish,” about a man confronting middle age and mortality. And to think about the parts he could have played beyond what he had in the works is almost too painful.

We’re left with a filmography that’s incomplete but brimming with gems. When Hoffman won the Best Actor Oscar in 2006 for his performance in “Capote,” the adoring looks on the faces of his peers and fellow nominees said it all. He ended his impassioned speech by saying simply, “It’s so good.” The same could be said for the man himself.

mlieberman@theeagleonline.com

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