Why is that when a talented and beloved actor dies, the tributes that pour forth always seem to make qualifying references to his or her “generation”? When news raced around the Internet yesterday that Oscar-winner Philip Seymour Hoffman had died of an apparent heroin-overdose at the age of 46, there it was again: He was one of the best actors . . . of his generation. It’s hardly fair to the artist—and nearly everyone seems to agree that Hoffman was an artist of rare ability—to imply that he was only one of the better ones to pop up in the last ten or 15 years. Hoffman was much better than that.
Philip Seymour Hoffman was orders of magnitude more talented than the other actors of his generation, who, like the well-known actors of most generations, tend to opt for the obvious over the obscure and a big paycheck over a big challenge. Most actors desire more than anything the respect that comes from making brave choices. But few have the horse sense to distinguish between a brave choice and a boring one. Fewer still have the commitment necessary to deliver on those choices. And almost none have the chops to pull off what Hoffman did in his too-short career. It’s no exaggeration to say that he was one of the greatest film actors of the last 50 years or more.
Film acting, it is often said, is the art of listening and reacting. Most of the time—especially for actors who begin their careers on the stage—this is reduced to a simple direction: do nothing. The idea is to hold it all inside, simply to glare at the camera or smolder in the direction of a co-star. The camera is an emotional X-ray machine capable of seeing directly into the soul. Thus, it’s best to say your lines and let the camera do the work. The real danger is in overacting, or appearing to work too hard. The camera magnifies those efforts; it can be your worst enemy and make you absurd. Best to err on the side of doing nothing.
Hoffman never did that. His appeal, and his emotional resonance as a performer, came from a more powerful choice: restraint. The mistake that most actors make is in thinking that doing nothing is enough—enough to convey emotion, move the plot along, and get you the next job. For some actors, it may be, but not for the great ones. Not for the actors whose work we remember long after they’re gone. The great ones know that hiding it only works if you have it. Hoffman had plenty.
Capote was the actor’s high point, the film that established that he could do much more than simply shine in a supporting role. But his track record in supporting roles was second to none—the pathetic boom-mike operator in Boogie Nights, the compassionate male nurse in Magnolia, the mentoring older journalist in Almost Famous. These performances are mini-masterpieces of emotional power. Every moment is true. This is what made Hoffman great—you knew when he showed up in a movie that something worth watching was about to happen. What was he doing in Moneyball, playing Oakland A’s manager Art Howe? Only stealing the show.
A few months ago, my wife and I decided to watch a movie we had never heard of, simply because Hoffman was in it. A Late Quartet (2012) was a little-noticed independent film in which Hoffman plays an ambitious yet thwarted second violinist in a successful string ensemble (Christopher Walken and Catherine Keener play two of the quartet’s other members). As both his professional life and his marriage crumble, Hoffman’s character struggles to understand whether his not-inconsiderable talent has been well-served by his unruly and lax attitude toward practice. In a virtuosic display of restraint, Hoffman implores the group’s meticulous first violinist, played by Mark Ivanir, to “unleash his passion” and so save the group from mediocrity. “Practicing obsessively doesn’t make your playing perfect, it actually sucks the life right out of it,” he says. “It’s rigid and monotonous and self-loving and safe.” It is, to my mind, as powerful a moment as any captured on film, and Hoffman’s capacity for restraint is what makes it work. There is no yelling. There is no fist pounding. But there is humanity in all its conflicted dimensions: anger, fear, resentment, respect, love, confusion. Moments like this don’t happen often on film, and they don’t happen on their own. Only Hoffman’s willingness to do something made it possible.
For all I know, Hoffman was thinking of himself as he railed against the rigid and the monotonous and the safe. Artists—especially good ones—can be like that sometimes. They can have a distorted view of their own work, failing to see its power. They can’t see it precisely because they hold themselves to a historical standard. They feel an obligation to do work that is not just as good or better than those in their peer group or their generation. The best measure themselves against the all-time greats—a list that surely must now include Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Photo: Philip Seymour Hoffman as Robert Gelbart in A Late Quartet.