It takes a special talent to make us uncomfortable. Inundated with obnoxious reality television, sensationalistic twenty-four hour news coverage, and a film culture that grows louder and brasher by the day, it is all the more remarkable when an actor is able to unsettle us. Philip Seymour Hoffman had this talent in an abundance that verged on the indecent. That he was also one of the most subtle actors of the twenty-first century seems paradoxical, until we realize that only by stealth and imagination could someone manage to catch a jaded viewer off-guard.
I was first caught off-guard by Hoffman in his small but crucial role as Scotty J. in Boogie Nights. The first appearance of this awkward, chubby, blindingly pale presence, nervously chewing on a pen as his belly hung out from under his childishly bright t-shirt, instantly defined this odd but sympathetic character. When he comes on to Dirk Diggler, I cringed in anticipation of a violent rebuff. But Diggler turns him away with a firmness tempered by kindness, and somehow this makes the scene all the more painful and awkward. What follows is to me one of the most memorable moments in contemporary film, when Hoffman’s character crumbles into self-loathing, repeating “I’m a fucking idiot!” while sobbing pitiably. Director Paul Thomas Anderson lets this go on for a disturbingly long time, until Hoffman’s performance begins to verge on self-parody. I remember the audience starting to laugh, then going silent, then laughing again, uncomfortable, not knowing how we were supposed to react. In subsequent years Hoffman would take us to this unsettling place, over and over again.
Hoffman never gave a bad performance: I can’t imagine any other actor of whom one can say this without hyperbole. More importantly, though, he never gave a performance that was anything less than fascinating. Every time he took on a new role, it felt like he was reinventing the art of acting itself. The characters he created were never people you could relate to: they were wildly imaginative creations that made you think about human beings differently. Who else could have created the heavy-breathing compulsive masturbator of Happiness, and who else could have made him a (sort of) sympathetic character? It’s that “sort of” that was Hoffman’s unique gift: all his characters, however minor, filled the screen, but there was always something elusive, furtive about them. Even the kindly hospice caregiver in Magnolia is imbued with a certain strangeness, his saintly self-effacement before Jason Robards' meanness verging on the masochistic.
Finding a character’s motivation is central to the practice of acting, but Hoffman’s unique talent was for hiding that motivation from the viewer. What drives The Master? Why is Dean Trumbell so obsessed with taking revenge in Punch Drunk Love? How does Capote feel about Perry Smith? This furtiveness is what makes his performance in Doubt such compelling viewing; doubt, uncertainty, unease was what Hoffman did best. Even at his most brash, as in his brilliant creation of Freddy in The Talented Mr. Ripley, he turns what could have been a caricature of an obnoxious society boy into a study in psychological complexity. Yet while Hoffman was always unerringly precise, he never seemed studied. Each new creation seemed effortless, and that was part of what made his characters so marvelously strange.
It will be hard not to think of the tragic circumstances of his death as we go back and watch the wealth of astonishing performances he left us, but I hope we can let his characters lead their own, peculiar lives, without Hoffman’s biography intruding on them. What made Hoffman utterly unique was his imagination, and like the creations of a great novelist, his characters will continue to lead their unfathomable lives, a little beyond our reach. Though it is crushing to realize we will have no new performances from this actor who, by all signs, was just getting started, it is some consolation to know that he will continue to surprise us and catch us off-guard, no matter how many times we see one of his films.
Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.