It’s a cliché to talk about leading men as being defined by their era. Yet it’s also impossible to discuss Philip Seymour Hoffman without admitting that few actors were so representative of late ‘90s-early ‘00s American film. These years marked the rise of “Indiewood,” as US indie filmmaking was transformed into an auxiliary of big studio production. Irony became the pop culture lingua franca. Tragedy and farce were often entwined, and nobody embodied the seriocomic quite like Hoffmann.
Consider his performance as Allen Mellencamp in Todd Solondz’ pitch-black Happiness. Allen’s only respite from the office drone drudgery of his daily existence is making nightly calls to random women, who he harasses while masturbating. There are a lot of ways these scenes could have gone wrong. Played broadly, they could butt up against a nuanced psychological portrayal; played for pathos, they could simply be pitiful spectacles. But Hoffman manages both, getting the laughs while never losing sight of Allen’s percolating inner life. Witness the flicker of satisfaction after he growls to one victim, quietly into his work phone, “You are empty, you are a zero, you are a black hole and I’m gonna fuck you till you’re coming outta your ears,” then the mounting bewilderment when she calls him back.
With a high forehead, puffy chin and pallid complexion, Hoffman was probably destined, to some degree, to play dweebs. Indeed, between the widowed huffer of Love Liza to the Charlie Kaufman proxy in Synecdoche New York, Hoffman mastered the art of quiet desperation. In Synecdoche and 25th Hour, he even explored that trusty device of masculinity-in-crisis, lusting after (much) younger women. But when he had the opportunity, he showed he could do intensely charismatic, too. Paul Thomas Anderson revealed that, of course, when casting him as L. Ron Hubbard proxy Lancaster Dodd in The Master. He just as effortlessly played a silver-tongued playboy in The Talented Mr. Ripley, and in Almost Famous, depicted Lester Bangs as a compassionate pedant, cheerfully dismissing ’70 rockers as craven phonies. Bangs is a true believer but is amused by himself, in Hoffman’s take.
Hoffman occupied these larger-than-life characters so convincingly because he anchored them in an everyday sense of imperfection but without self-doubt, fully persuaded by his own delusions. This only adds to the chalky radiance he brings to even small roles like Bangs and Scotty J, the lovesick boom operator about two sports out of his league on the porn sets of Boogie Nights. – Benjamin Aspray