Phillip Seymour Hoffman (1967-2014): Thoughts on the “flawless” actor

PSH starred opposite DeNiro in "Flawless" (1999)
PSH starred opposite DeNiro in “Flawless” (1999)

Study, find all the good teachers and study with them, get involved in acting to act, not to be famous or for the money.  Do plays.  It’s not worth it if you are just in it for the money.  You have to love it.  -Advice to young actors

One afternoon several years ago, I was bored and flipping through channels for something to watch, when I first came across Phillip Seymour Hoffman (PSH) in the indie drama Flawless (1999).  He plays flamboyant (loud/proud) drag queen Rusty Zimmerman who lives on the same floor as Walt (Robert DeNiro), a cranky/homophobic ex-cop.  Since Walt has suffered vocal chord damage, his doctor (Madhur Jaffrey) recommends singing  lessons.  Of course, Rusty loves singing, and herein begins the (unlikely) friendship.  I was on the edge of my seat, wondering how these two opposites would get along!  There was humor, too, as the two hard-headed men launched insults (many quite funny) at each other.  PSH brought such a fire to RustyWho is this guy, and why didn’t I know more about him!? 

PSH as a home health care nurse in "Magnolia" (1999)
PSH as a home health care nurse in “Magnolia” (1999)

PSH took on a totally different role in Magnolia (1999)- he was Phil Parma, a nurse who took care of a dying man.  This wasn’t a big role, and the film was confusing/annoying to many people.  However, the kindness and quiet dignity of Phil stayed with me.  Here I discovered one of the recurring themes of PSH’s career- turning the notion of traditional masculinity on its head.  

 I’m waiting for somebody to say I’m at least cute.  But nobody has.  -On Hollywood’s view of his appearance

PSH was a pale blonde, stocky, and not very tall- lacking the looks of  a typical leading man.  However, this became an advantage to PSH, who immersed himself into each role (unencumbered by vanity). 

PSH as yuppie Freddie Miles in "The Talented Mr. Ripley" (1999)
PSH as yuppie Freddie Miles in “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (1999)

Actors are responsible to the people we play.  I don’t label or judge.  I just play them as honestly and expressively and creatively as I can, in the hope that people who ordinarily turn their heads in disgust instead think, ‘What I thought I’d feel about that guy, I don’t totally feel right now.’  – On his responsibility as an actor

How many actors can steal a few scenes from Matt Damon!?  PSH did just that in Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley (one of my favorite films), playing yuppie snob/jazz lover, Freddie Miles.  He was shallow, but no dummy, so had to be dealt with by Damon’s character.  PSH only needed a few lines/moments to establish his character.   

PSH as a writer in "State and Main" (2000)
PSH as a writer in “State and Main” (2000)

PSH played Joseph Turner White, a humble/somewhat befuddled novelist/screenwriter in David Mamet’s sly comedy State and Main (2000).  It was a rare role- he got a love interest.  Joseph was dealing with the fact that Hollywood producers had a very different view of the story he created.  He was making money because of the film, but felt uneasy about being a sellout.

PSH as the title character in "Capote" (2005)
PSH as the title character in “Capote” (2005)

The much-respected character actor finally achieved leading man status with “Capote” (2005).  I didn’t know much about Truman Capote, but thought the film was quite atmospheric.  I especially liked the scenes were PSH was working alongside Catherine Keener (who played writer Harper Lee, Capote’s close gal pal). 

PSH as a CIA agent in "Charlie Wilson's War" (2007)
PSH as a CIA agent in “Charlie Wilson’s War” (2007)

I really loved PSH’s role in Charlie Wilson’s War!  He plays Gust Avrakotos, a brash/whip-smart CIA agent and first gen Greek-American.  Some in the agency have questioned his loyalty, due to his ethnic background, we learn in one scene.  PSH and Tom Hanks make a dynamic duo.  Below is my brief review (from earlier blog post):

I also saw Charlie Wilson’s War (over in Lincoln Center area).  It was GREAT!!!  There were MANY laughs, as well as things we can relate to (in our time).  Tom Hanks was EVEN better than usual, but Phillip Seymour Hoffman was TERRIFIC!  Honestly, whenever I see that guy, I wonder how he gets so deep into character!  He is not even middle-aged yet… WOW! 

PSH as Father Flynn in "Doubt" (2008)
PSH as Father Flynn in “Doubt” (2008)

The theatrically-trained actor got to marry his first love with film in Doubt (2008), based on the stage play by John Patrick Shanley, who grew up attending Catholic school in 1960s BronxPSH worked with rising star Amy Adams and the fabulous Meryl Streep- one of the highest points in any actor’s career.  (Shanley wondered who was an actor who could “stand up to Meryl Streep?”)  Here is my review of the film. 

PSH won the Best Actor Oscar in 2006 for "Capote"
PSH won the Best Actor Oscar in 2006 for “Capote”

I’m probably more personal when I’m acting than at any other time. More open, more direct. Because it allows me to be something that I can’t always feel comfortable with when I’m living my own life, you know? Because it’s make- believe.  -On his process

PSH consolidated his rep as one of the finest actors under 40 with Capote (2005).  He won the Los Angeles Film Critics Award as Best Actor.  In 2006, he was awarded the Best Actor Oscar.  When I heard (on NPR) that he had died, I didn’t think it was true!  How can someone his age die without any warning?  I didn’t know about his personal life or struggles with addiction (alcohol at a young age, then heroin).  Sadly, the flaws were offscreen, and couldn’t be edited out. 


2 thoughts on “Phillip Seymour Hoffman (1967-2014): Thoughts on the “flawless” actor

  1. I didn’t know his work well but I enjoyed reading your personal reflections and especially the quote from him about things being make-believe. Thanks.


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