Philip Seymour Hoffman: An Appreciation

Posted: February 04, 2014

CRITICS AND journalists will rightly rave about Philip Seymour Hoffman, in part because he was a fine actor, in part because he flattered critics and journalists in one of his great roles.

Hoffman contributed one of his defining performances to Cameron Crowe's "Almost Famous," as rock critic Lester Bangs, playing adviser to a young journalist, worrying about the deterioration of '70s rock 'n' roll in a way that seemed to herald the growing cultural confusion about art and celebrity.

"You cannot make friends with the rock stars," he tells the youngster. "These people want you to write sanctimonious stories about the genius of the rock stars, and they will ruin rock 'n' roll and strangle everything we love about it."

This was the movie that showed that Hoffman could give a great speech - remember him, as Bangs, on rock becoming a shallow "industry of cool." Indelible scene: Bangs takes a late-night phone call from his deflated protege and says, "The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we tell each other when we're uncool."

The irony, I suppose, is that in "Almost Famous" the actor made critics and journalists look almost cool, so it is not stretching the truth to say that as a performer Hoffman accomplished the impossible.

Hoffman, the actor, never seemed much interested in being cool, and his career drew a clear line between true talent and mere stardom.

Hoffman grew up near Rochester, N.Y., and trained as an actor at New York University. He had a few early roles as a snotty patrician ("Scent of a Woman"), showing a knack for villainy, and later did a comic version of that character in "The Big Lebowski."

He worked busily as a supporting actor, and was a standout as the crewman with an obvious crush on Mark Wahlberg's porn star in Paul Thomas Anderson's "Boogie Nights" (1997).

In 1999, he teamed with Anderson again in "Magnolia," the same year he played in "The Talented Mr. Ripley" and, as a drag queen, opposite Robert De Niro in "Flawless."

The next year he starred in "Almost Famous," before showing us a sleazier side of journalism as the loathsome tabloid reporter Freddie Lounds in 2002's "Red Dragon."

All of these roles showed Hoffman to be one of the smartest, keenest, most capable actors in movies, too often confined to the margin, but - with his angry intelligence and agitated cynicism so close to the surface - he was not an easy fit for leading man.

He'd need exactly the right role - and in 2005 he found it, playing the title character in "Capote," which he co-produced. Hoffman won the Oscar for best actor, playing Capote as only slightly less monstrous than the killers he profiled in his best-seller "In Cold Blood" - using his celebrity to influence the investigation and control the narrative in a way that bent facts and aggrandized the writer. Again, it was Hoffman examining the volatile mixture of celebrity, stardom, talent.

He would never have another starring role like it, but he was consistently brilliant (later Oscar-nominated as the accused priest in "Doubt") in support. I loved Hoffman as the embittered CIA man in "Charlie Wilson's War," easily lifting scenes from Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts. ("It's been my experience that when people with too much money and too much free time get involved in politics, pretty soon I forget who it is I'm supposed to be shooting at.") He made the movie with Mike Nichols, who directed Hoffman on Broadway ("The Seagull"), where the actor accrued Tony nominations for "True West," "Death of a Salesman" and "Long Day's Journey Into Night."

Hoffman was appropriately mesmerizing as the L. Ron Hubbard-ish cult leader in "The Master" - in one terrific scene, turning Joaquin Phoenix's skepticism into fervent belief (again with Paul Thomas Anderson).

Hoffman had just returned from the Sundance Film Festival, where he'd helped promote two just-completed films - "A Most Wanted Man" and "God's Pocket," the latter based on former Daily News columnist Pete Dexter's story of a small-time Philadelphia hood (Hoffman) scrambling to find money for his son's funeral.

Hoffman also recently scored his first box-office megasmash, playing the duplicitous Plutarch in the "Hunger Games" sequel "Catching Fire," at $420 million one of the highest-grossing movies of the year. He'd completed Part 3, "Mockingjay, Part 1." The fourth and final installment is in production and according to had seven days of shooting left on that film.

Hoffman, 46, was found dead in his Manhattan apartment yesterday, victim of an apparent drug overdose.

This recalls another mentoring exchange from "Almost Famous."

"You do drugs?"

"No, sir."

"Smart kid."


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