Philip Seymour Hoffman, one and only

Story highlights

  • Gene Seymour: There was no other actor like Philip Seymour Hoffman
  • He didn't play a certain kind of role but had astonishing range, he says
  • Seymour says the actor made you wonder what he would have in store
  • He says Hoffman's acting vividly sketched the lives of people who are besieged and unlucky

There was no one else like him, certainly not in our time, likely not ever.

Is this an overstatement? Put it this way: How would you ever typecast Philip Seymour Hoffman? Gangster? Priest? Cop? Super villain? Spy? Schoolteacher? Sybarite? Vagrant? A president of the United States? Let's put it another way: Who could you imagine doing all these things in ways that no one else had done before?

Just so. No one.

Hoffman, who was found dead at 46 of an apparent drug overdose Sunday, had at one time or another played some of those above-mentioned roles and did with an open-hearted incisiveness that unsettled presumptions and awakened possibilities.

Gene Seymour

When Hoffman was onscreen, you knew you were going to see a kind of person who, while you may not have personally encountered in real life, you acknowledged as a plausible human being, no matter how quirky or disorienting his personality.

Whether he was playing the manipulative, abusive, but emotionally needy cult leader in 2012's "The Master" (to these eyes, his finest big-screen performance), a crusty, disheveled but faintly idealistic CIA operator in 2007's "Charlie Wilson's War" or a pampered, egocentric but observant rich boy in 1999's "The Talented Mr. Ripley," Hoffman layered his technical skills with compassion, insight and sense of risk.

Those skills were not inconsiderable. He packed a resonant voice that could vault several octaves above its normal deep-dyed wooly tone. (Look no further than his Oscar-winning performance in the title role of 2005's "Capote.")

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    He exercised a meticulous sense of detail, lightly tailored for each role, no matter how ludicrous ("Mission: Impossible III's" grimy, wealthy and sadistic bad-guy-in-charge) or familiar ("Moneyball's" blustery, seen-it-all team manager).

    His was the kind of versatility commonly associated with the character actor more than with the movie star. Yet it was Hoffman's broad range and penetrating compassion that made him, if not a star, a reliable brand name for movies that aimed higher than commercial cinema usually bothered. You looked forward to seeing Hoffman's name in the credits, if only to see what kind of weirdness was in store.

    It wasn't apparent at first how far and how fast Hoffman's oddly configured star would rise. Depending on how long you'd been going to the movies, you might have first noticed him as the petulant, trigger-happy small-town policeman in 1994's "Nobody's Fool" or as the swaggering, borderline-deranged craps player in 1996's "Hard Eight."

    Neither of these performances prepared you for his sweet, out-of-left-field portrayal of Scotty J, a gay, grubby-puppy production assistant for a porn-movie outfit in 1997's "Boogie Nights."

    After a while, the only thing you expected from Hoffman was the unexpected. He gave a persuasive, tender rendering in 2000's "Almost Famous" of the ill-fated rock critic Lester Bangs (whose premature drug-related death, not depicted in the film, deepens the poignancy of Hoffman's own).

    A succession of misfits, screw-ups, neurotics, thwarted dreamers and self-deluded narcissists followed offset by such complicated, intriguing characters as the tormented visionary theater director Caden Cotard in 2008's "Synecdoche, New York." Cotard is one of the few characters in Hoffman's curriculum vitae whose massive urges for sex, adulation and control are sated, but whose more cosmic yearnings remain unfulfilled. Even when not playing someone clinging to life's margins, Hoffman played his own worst enemy.

    Perhaps that's what endeared him to us the most, this unlikely icon of craftsmanship whose physical presence called to mind how Dorothy Parker once described James Thurber's cartoon characters: Having the "outer semblance of unbaked cookies."

    From this loose, somewhat baggy set of physical attributes, Hoffman sculpted vivid depictions of the human heart at its most besieged and overwhelmed. The effort he put into these renderings showed he cared about the unlucky, the awkward and (despite it all) the most dauntless among us.

    Is all this overstatement? Only if you can think of anyone else who will carry on in his absence. And I'm stumped ... and sad.

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