Remembering Philip Seymour Hoffman, an unconventional movie star

February 3, 2014 at 6:46 PM EDT
Actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died Sunday at the age of 46, defied ever being typecast. He’s played a detestable antihero and a brown-nosing manservant with equal skill and conviction. Jeffrey Brown talks to The Washington Post’s film critic Ann Hornaday about Hoffman’s honesty on screen, which she says was key to his connection with moviegoers.

GWEN IFILL: And finally tonight: remembering the work of the actor Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Jeff is back with that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Hoffman, who died this weekend, was a prolific actor on stage and on screen. He appeared in more than 50 films, often in a memorable supporting role, but just as notably as a leading man. In 2006, he won the Oscar for best actor for his portrayal of writer Truman Capote.

Here’s a short clip from that movie, in which Capote is asked about his feelings for one of the murderers he’s writing about. Catherine Keener plays his friend, Harper Lee.

CATHERINE KEENER, actress: Did you? Did you fall in love with him?

PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN, actor: I will not answer that. It’s as Perry and I grew up in the same house. And one day, he stood up and went out the back door, while I went out the front.

CATHERINE KEENER: Are you kidding me?


JEFFREY BROWN: Ann Hornaday reviews films for The Washington Post and joins me now.

And, Ann, you started your remembrance today writing, “Philip Seymour Hoffman wasn’t a movie star in the conventional sense of the term.”

What was he?

ANN HORNADAY, The Washington Post: Well, he was a classic character actor, you know?

I mean, these are the actors, the yeoman working man guys who can disappear into roles and become the people they are playing, slip into them effortlessly, and also, by the way, make the stars around them look all the more credible for their own honesty and truth-seeking.

JEFFREY BROWN: I was thinking for a lot of us. And I’m one. We started watching this guy in films, something striking about him. Oh, he’s in different — wondering, who is this guy? And then we didn’t know after so many films?

ANN HORNADAY: It’s so true.

And no matter what he did, whether it was a comic role, or dramatic role, a leading role, a supporting role, he was complete. I mean, it was that quality of screen acting which is fusing being and seeming and being utterly transparent.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, now explain — explain that, explain that.

ANN HORNADAY: Well, you are playing a role.

You are — you’re reciting words that have been written by a screenwriter. You are hitting your marks that the director has worked out, but you’re making it — you might be on your 16th take, but you are making it seem utterly brand-new, spontaneous and, most of all, honest. And I think that’s what people — you know, audience members who grew to love him over the years, I think, realized he never lied. He always told the truth to whatever character he was playing. It just emanated from him.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s — I was — that is what tied his performance, these many different characters, but you think that’s what ties them all together?

ANN HORNADAY: I think that’s what made him so great.

And, yes, I do think that that was just a consistent through line. Regardless of the material he was in, the genre, the scope, maybe even the quality, he always elevated it, because he was honest. And he was 100 percent committed and right there.

He was also relatable. I mean, let’s face it, he looked like most of the rest of us. And I just think there was something so endearing about that and so reassuring about that.

JEFFREY BROWN: And as he did get some starring lead roles, he continued coming out in these small films in smaller roles as well.

ANN HORNADAY: Yes, he did.

And even just the last few years were sort of a great case in point. I mean, he was doing movies with Brad Pitt and George Clooney, and that was a great example, I think, of here are two bona fide larger-than-life movie stars.

JEFFREY BROWN: Movie stars in the way we think of it. Right?

ANN HORNADAY: But they were — in one case, Brad Pitt is playing a baseball manager. In another, George Clooney is playing a politician.

Hoffman’s performances sort of grounded them and allowed them — allowed us to believe them as those sort of more blue-collar, not glamorous guys.

JEFFREY BROWN: One thing you wrote about is how this inevitably plays into the idea of the tortured artist, right, the dark place that someone like this, who is so — such a genius on the stage and screen, reaches to. It’s a romantic idea that you don’t totally buy, I think.

ANN HORNADAY: No, I think — and I understand where it comes from, because I think when we lose somebody — and it happened with Heath Ledger. It seems to happen almost — with dispiriting regularity — these people with such promise and such gifts, and you think, why would they embark on a self-destructive path?

And so that is when you start introducing terms like demons and fighting with demons and the tortured artist. And I think that is a way for us to express with compassion and respect their gifts without being punitive. But I also think it mystifies the deeper truth, which is that these are often — this is a disease. Addiction, dependence is a disease, whether it is a chemical dependence or a psychological one.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we just have been 20 seconds. Do you have a favorite Hoffman either film or scene that you want to recommend to people?

ANN HORNADAY: You know, I will go — I will be cliche and say that, along with most of the rest of the country, I was first introduced to him in “Boogie Nights.” I had seen him in — I think I have seen him in littler roles, in littler films, but that was really the first time I was aware of him as such a galvanizing force.

And that scene with Mark Wahlberg where he is showing off the car that he bought to match Mark Wahlberg’s character, he is just this lovesick guy with a crush this other guy. He is just tortured and sympathetic and vulnerable and sweet and the whole — the whole beautiful mess.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Ann Hornaday of The Washington Post on the life and work of Philip Seymour Hoffman, thanks so much.

ANN HORNADAY: Thank you.