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Mon February 3, 2014
Movies

On Philip Seymour Hoffman, And His Many Appearances

Originally published on Mon February 3, 2014 6:16 pm

When actor Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead Sunday at the age of 46, there was shock among those he'd worked with in the film and theater communities. He'd died too young. At the peak of his craft. With so much still to offer. But the loss was also felt by people who didn't know him, yet felt they did — me among them.

I'm struck, in retrospect, by how often the lines that stick with me from Hoffman's performances are about appearances. So many of his characters talk about being not really attractive, in one way or another unimpressive. The "uncool" rock critic he played in Almost Famous, for instance, giving advice to a younger writer in whom he saw flashes of himself:

Offscreen, Hoffman did have a cool factor. No actor of his generation was more respected for getting under the skin of characters who were flawed, and lonely, and humiliated, and who consequently reminded audiences of themselves, from Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman on Broadway to a furiously aggrieved (and fair warning, colorfully profane) CIA agent in Charlie Wilson's War:

Coarse, yes, and rumpled, shaggy, a lumbering bear of a man. Hoffman didn't look like anyone's idea of a movie star; he was doughy and soft-featured, even when he managed to lose weight for a part.

He complained to an interviewer once that the press never described him in ways that made him sound attractive — "I'm waiting," he said, "for somebody to say I'm at least cute. But nobody has." Did that help him get into the heads of characters who were regularly shunted aside?

In Capote, the film that won him an Oscar, he transformed himself — voice thin and high, gestures fey, fastidious to a fault. But as showy as that transformation was, and as celebrated a writer Truman Capote had been, Hoffman was still playing a man all too aware that he would never fit in:

We were wrong about Philip Seymour Hoffman, too. Or at least, I was. Somehow I'd never registered that he had a substance-abuse problem, though as I look at what's been written about him in the past day or so, I'm suddenly aware that he made no secret of it.

But he'd founded a theater company, directed plays and appeared in more than 50 movies in 23 years, getting so persuasively inside the heads of characters who were variously high-maintenance, high-functioning and just plain high that I guess I just assumed he couldn't have done that if he weren't himself centered and sober.

And perhaps he was. Or perhaps you don't get that good at communicating insecurity and self-doubt without knowing a little something about those things. All actors observe and absorb and use things they see in others — speech patterns, gestures, ways of relating with the world. Hoffman's performances, though, didn't feel observed. They felt lived — and in my head even now, I'm conflating them with him.

Which makes me wish I could tell him, "Mr. Hoffman, you're so much more than cute."

All any of us can do now, though, is say it to the screen.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Finally this hour, we have an appreciation of Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. He was found dead yesterday in his New York apartment, just 46 years old and at the peak of his craft. Critic Bob Mondello says Hoffman was the sort of everyman audiences thought they knew, even when they didn't.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: I'm struck in retrospect by how often the lines that stick with me from Philip Seymour Hoffman's performances are about appearances. So many of his characters talk about being not really attractive or impressive. The rock critic he played in "Almost Famous," for instance, giving advice to a younger writer in whom he saw flashes of himself.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ALMOST FAMOUS")

PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN: (As Lester Bangs) Because we are uncool. While women will always be a problem for guys like us, most of the great art in the world is about that very problem. I mean, good-looking people, they got no spine. Their art never lasts. And they get the girls who are smarter.

PATRICK FUGIT: (As William Miller) Yeah. I can really see that now.

HOFFMAN: (As Lester Bangs) Yeah. Because great art is about guilt and longing and, you know, love disguised as sex, and sex disguised as love.

FUGIT: (As William Miller) I'm glad you were home.

HOFFMAN: (As Lester Bangs) I'm always home. I'm uncool.

MONDELLO: Off screen, Hoffman did have a cool factor. No actor of his generation was more respected for getting under the skin of characters who were flawed, lonely, humiliated, and who consequently reminded audiences of themselves - from his Willy Loman in "Death of a Salesman" on Broadway to his furiously aggrieved CIA agent in "Charlie Wilson's War."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR")

HOFFMAN: (As Gust Avrakotos) Promises were made.

JOHN SLATTERY: (As Cravely) Not by me.

HOFFMAN: (As Gust Avrakotos) I've been with the company for 24 years. I was posted in Greece for 15. I've advised and armed the Hellenic Army. I've neutralized champions of communism. I've spent the past three years learning Finnish, which should come in handy here in Virginia, and I'm never ever sick at sea. So I want to know why I'm not going to be your Helsinki station chief.

SLATTERY: (As Cravely) You're coarse.

HOFFMAN: (As Gust Avrakotos) Excuse me.

MONDELLO: Coarse, yes, and rumpled, shaggy, a lumbering bear of a man. Hoffman didn't look like anyone's idea of a movie star - doughy and soft-featured, even when he managed to lose weight for a part. He complained to an interviewer once that the press never described him in ways that made him sound attractive.

I'm waiting, he said, for somebody to say I'm at least cute but nobody has. In "Capote," he transformed himself - voice thin and high, gestures fey. But as showy as those changes were, Hoffman was still playing a man all too aware that he would never fit in.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CAPOTE")

HOFFMAN: (As Truman Capote) Ever since I was a child, folks have thought they had me pegged because of the way I am, you know, the way I talk. And they're always wrong.

MONDELLO: We were wrong about Philip Seymour Hoffman, too. Or at least I was. Somehow, I'd never registered that he had a substance abuse problem, though as I look at what's been written about him in the last day or so, I'm suddenly aware that he made no secret of it. But he'd founded a theater company, directed plays, and appeared in more than 50 movies in 23 years, getting so persuasively inside the heads of characters who were variously high-maintenance, high-functioning and just plain high that I assumed he himself must've been centered and sober.

And perhaps he was. Or perhaps you don't get that good at communicating insecurity and self-doubt without knowing a little something about those things. All actors observe and absorb and use things they see in others. Hoffman's performances, though, didn't feel observed. They felt lived. And in my head even now, I'm conflating them with him, say, the character he played in "Magnolia."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MAGNOLIA")

HOFFMAN: (As Phil Parma) I know that I might sound ridiculous. Like, this is the scene in the movie where the guy is trying to get a hold of the long-lost son, you know? But this is that scene. This is that scene. And I think they have those scenes in movies because they're true.

MONDELLO: Which makes me wish I could tell him: Mr. Hoffman, you are so much more than cute. All any of us can do now, though, is say it to the screen. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MAGNOLIA")

HOFFMAN: (As Phil Parma) See, this is the scene of the movie where you help me out.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.