The Legacy of Philip Seymour Hoffman

Michael Prescott
Latest posts by Michael Prescott (see all)

Legacy is a funny word. It implies greatness, history and, perhaps most of all, the past tense. It was a word I used almost a year ago in the title of one of my very first articles for the site to describe the career of Heath Ledger in a career retrospective fitted around his would-be 34th birthday. He was young and talented, and his death was both shocking and tragic. So too was Philip Seymour Hoffman’s. They both not only aspired to but also achieved some of the very finest acting witnessed in the 21st century and leave a list of astonishing films behind them. They each attained the status whereby the term “legacy” could be applied. But we sometimes forgot to celebrate them enough when they were alive, and when the word still applied but with less tragic connotations.

Admittedly, no-one could have pre-empted their sorrowful, all-too-early fates (you’ll notice that this isn’t a discussion about drugs, by the way). In fact, the rhetoric used with PSH’s death is that he was expected to go on and steal another ten, twenty or thirty films. He had time to put in another five or ten performances that were incredible or thereabouts – or so we thought. But this isn’t a post intended to be heavily laden with the benefit of hindsight, but rather a plea to the future.

The time taken to respond to this utterly devastating piece of news has no relation to anything except the thought-process as to whether this article was needed, or indeed appropriate. I completely understand the desire to do something relevant or respectful – a tribute or anecdote or personal reflection – but there’s certainly been no shortage of it. And most of it was delivered very, very quickly. However in this case not only was it deserved, but it also felt tasteful, heartfelt and quite right. Mostly, it felt like the majority were desperate to honour the man in any way that they could. That’s how I feel too.

I wouldn’t write about just anybody, particularly in the aftermath of their death, but Philip Seymour Hoffman holds a special place in my heart. It’s a testament to his wonderful abilities that I can’t even precisely point to why. An approximation, I suppose, is that he’s obviously tremendously gifted, conveys an enormous amount of warmth in his performances (of the character when necessary, but also of himself) and his loveable losers – in all of their forms – are projections we can all relate to in some form. Some actors become cultural icons through some sort of shared affinity or closeness – just ‘because’ – and I certainly felt it with him.

So did plenty of others it seems, given the incredibly positive reaction. And not just from those who love film either. I was astounded (and delighted) to see tweets of genuine condolence from the likes of Gary Lineker and Owen Jones in the immediate aftermath of the announcement. His likeability, charm, talent and the recognition of all of this went way beyond his own medium, it seems. And so, after thinking it through, it seemed like the best thing to do was to honour Philip Seymour Hoffman after all by looking at his career, and specifically at some of his underrated films and performances.

Beyond that, our commitment at Vada is to honour those alive and still working today with future posts along the same lines from myself and other writers. Ledger, Hoffman and the myriad of other inspirations that we want to praise can be done so at any time, not just in their death. And so, whilst our aim is to continue this trend over the coming months as a fitting tribute for PSH, we turn our attentions first to the man himself.

Usually when an actor passes, his or her greatest works are held up in high-esteem. Perhaps two or three, with some outsider shouts as well. But not with Hoffman. It’s a testament to his output that over the last two weeks I’ve heard about how Happiness, The Big Lebowski, Capote, Almost Famous, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, The Master, Synecdoche New York and Boogie Nights was each his best or brightest moment.

And it’s a further validation of his career that there are plenty more yet unmentioned. Here are just some brief glimpses into an outstanding 20 or so years of acting in the form of four underrated films and performances, all of which come from the 21st century:

Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

Hoffman was a frequent collaborator with Paul Thomas Anderson, working with him on the filmmaker’s debut (Hard Eight), reuniting for Boogie Nights and Magnolia, and leading his latest film The Master. In the midst of all this, he even turns up (essentially in a cameo role) within Punch-Drunk Love and – despite the love shared by many for this film (though I’m not one of them) – it’s his fleeting appearance which steals the show. PSH had become an expert in delivering memorable performances regardless of the size of the role, and these skills are no better demonstrated than in Punch-Drunk Love. Here’s a taste of the film in the form of his memorable phonecall with Adam Sandler’s character…

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007)

Sidney Lumet directed some real gems in his time: 12 Angry Men, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network… take your pick, really. But his final feature is up there with his greats, though it remains unnoticed by many. It tells the tale of a dysfunctional family and the two brothers – Hoffman and Ethan Hawke – who plot to rob their parents’ jewellery store in an act of desperation to make something of their pitiful, faltering lives. Obviously, things don’t go exactly to plan.

Hawke’s character (Hank) is coerced by Hoffman’s (Andy) and their on-screen chemistry is magnetic. Hank is every bit as fragile and passive as Andy is dominating, in an almost disconcerting demonstration of power. Forget loveable losers or any sense of likeability, this is a frightening portrayal from Hoffman that evokes later creations such as The Master’s Lancaster Dodd.

BTDKYD – the title of which comes from an Irish proverb – also features Albert Finney, Marisa Tomei and a brief appearance by Michael Shannon. It’s a devastating film in every sense, exposing the lengths to which some people will go in order to strive towards happiness and success. Here’s Andy discussing travel plans with his wife, a fortune which will only come to them if he (or rather, his brother) can pull off this heinous crime…

Mary and Max (2009)

Voice artistry and animation are two areas which you might not associate with Philip Seymour Hoffman, and up until 2009 you’d be right. But Mary and Max belongs in the same warped league as similar success stories A Town Called Panic or Team America. It’s a one-off animation that has absolutely no right to work, and yet it’s a stunning achievement. The narrative hinges on the pen pal relationship of the eponymous duo as they each tell their tale and update the other on their life as it develops, and as they learn more about the world and their place within it.

This could be loosely termed a comedy: it’s funny, but there are huge doses of tragedy and darkness (which makes it all the better). It also has an oddball soundtrack featuring Perpetuum Mobile by Penguin Cafe Café Orchestra acting as a motif throughout. Max is an aging New York Jew with a fear of pretty much everything, and a complete lack of understanding of other people; Mary is a young Australian girl who learns about the harsh truth of life as well as its foibles.

Together, they’re unstoppable – it’s utterly engaging and charming from beginning to end. It pulls no punches and it sets itself apart from most other animations (this being a rather fine example of clay-mation) in pretty much every way. PSH is barely recognisable – gruff, worn voice or not – but he still delivers a fine vocal outing, and the film deserves all the credit and attention it can get. Here’s a fairly typical scene…

The Ides of March (2011)

Even in a stellar cast including Paul Giamatti, Ryan Gosling, George Clooney, Evan Rachel Wood, Marisa Tomei and Jeffrey Wright, PSH is on top form and remains well and truly above the radar. The Clooney-directed political drama relies on believeable characterisation and strong performances, and the Gosling-Hoffman-Giamatti trio – a political love-triangle of sorts – is fantastic in this regard.

Hoffman ensures that a perfectly fine role becomes an essential one, and his presence elevates the film (as it always seemed to do). Clooney co-wrote the screenplay along with frequent collaborator Grant Heslov and House of Cards creator Beau Willimon whose play the material was adapted from. This gives you an insight into the type of seedy, morally-ambiguous (or vacuous) territory that we’re entering, all the whilst maintain a healthy distance from the traditional theatrical setup.

The sense of loyalty and betrayal that the film touches upon is heavily due to the honourable centre that he manages to give it without bleeding over into sentimentality. Hoffman is often bringing broken men to the screen, but here he’s a ruthless, functioning professional operating in a broken environment. And as ever, he’s excellent.

A minor warning for this one: it contains a spoiler or two as it’s quite far into the film, but it doesn’t give too much away…

And to finish off, here’s the video of Philip Seymour Hoffman winning his Academy Award for Best Actor (Capote) in 2005, with Heath Ledger’s Brokeback Mountain performance also in contention to make things that little bit more heartbreaking…

About Michael Prescott

24-year-old Welsh writer on all things film. Background in Philosophy. Accidentally in Sheffield for 6 years and counting. Addicted to Kevin Spacey. Tweetable: @M_S_Prescott