I love character actors. Ask me about Casablancaand I’m just as likely to talk about Claude Rains, Sydney Greenstreet, SZ Sakall, or Peter Lorre as I am Bogart. Every once and awhile a character actor becomes a star in his or her own right. Philip Seymour Hoffman was one of them. He died tragically, unexpectedly of a presumed OD on not so Super Sunday at the age of 46. He was an addict who had been clean and sober for many years before falling off the wagon big time. Addiction is one of the most powerful things in the world. As an alcoholic friend told me many years ago: one drink was too many and an entire distillery was not enough. The same goes for recovering junkies. There’s a reason they call it junk.
Hoffman was a large, burly man who won an Oscar as the diminutive scribbler Truman Capote, but I remember him best for three character performances. He first made an impression on me as a mouthy preppie who figures out that nice Matt Damon is a homicidal maniac in The Talented Mr. Ripley. I recall asking Dr. A “who was that guy” as we left the theatre. I’d seen him before but he rarely looked the same from role to role. The mark of a great character actor.
In Cameron Crowe’s sublime Almost Famous, Hoffman played legendary real life rock critic Lester Bangs.(See the picture above.) I met Lester a few time when I was almost as young as the protagonist in the film and, trust me, PSH nailed it. If you’ve never seen the extended version of Crowe’s masterpiece, Untitled, it’s must viewing since there are more scenes with Hoffman channeling Lester.
Finally, he played CIA coup plotter and raffish Greek-American rogue Gust Avrakotos in Charlie Wilson’s War, wherein Aaron Sorkin gave him the memorable monologue below. Watch him rip Mad Men’s John Slattery a new one:
Hoffman transformed himself for the part and convinced me he was one of my countrymen. Actually, it was less of a stretch than making Truman Capote likable.
If you ask people about their favorite PSH roles or movies, they may well list 3 completely different ones than mine. And you know what? They’d be right. Hoffman’s versatility is one reason that he will be missed by film buffs and theatre goers alike. He also leaves three young children behind, which compounds the tragedy.
The fact that PSH died of a presumed heroin overdose has resulted in a lot or moralizing on the Tweeter Tube and elsewhere. Fuck those people who want to transform a life largely well-lived into a cautionary tale. Hoffman’s tragic passing shows just how powerful addiction is and should not used as an excuse for malakas to sermonize. Remember the films, folks, remember the films.