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“We’re at the party Ma!” – Philip Seymour Hoffman – A Film Eulogy

Sometimes even the deaths of strangers can have a profound effect. In this age of instant news and simultaneous grief, it was an utter shock to hear that Philip Seymour Hoffman had passed away.  All adjectives we have used to describe (seemingly) similar deaths, from River Phoenix to Heath Ledger immediately come into play – the death was untimely, devastating and wasteful. Perhaps it is a sign of the times that in this instance I felt compelled to write my sadness down.


Philip Seymour Hoffman – PSH – had a valuable and unique impact on viewers. For me, his greatest role was as Caden Cotard in Synecdoche: New York – a spiralling fictional biopic of an interactive acting/living community and one of my first reviews. The film is complex, spider-webbing out in typical Charlie Kaufmann style.  PSH was in practically every scene making an arrogant, pretentious character humble and watchable, essential in this nonsensical film. Synecdoche may now be remembered as a metaphor for PSH himself – you never truly know the pains of your heroes.

I honestly cannot think of a bad performance from PSH. He seemed to make excellent decisions – from25th Hour to Moneyball – his acting was tight. He’s even the best thing in a few average pictures (The Boat That Rocked, Along Came Polly, Patch Adams).  Often PSH’s contribution gave a film credence and context. Such as in Charlie Wilson’s War and The Ides of March – high profile intellectual political movies which include PSH because of his gravitas and ability to convey experience – a kind of been-there-done-it, hangdog demeanour – these roles were in safe hands.

PSH developed a separate career as an Indie spokesperson – State and Main, The Savages, Happiness,and Jack Goes Boating were quintessential PSH films – even when he was only part of an ensemble. But the genius lies in a CV so wide in spectrum, he probably thrived on variety. From the comedic (The Invention of Lying) to the Blockbuster (Mission Impossible III) through yearning treatises on the human condition (Magnolia). In 46 years he did it all.

PSH was a character actor who could seamlessly make the character the star and he felt like a friend. An open face and every-man light-heartedness punctuated his interviews.  This was in great contrast to his most well-known roles. PSH threw himself into playing loathsome characters in The Master, The Devil Knows Your Dead to The Hunger Games, he was horrible, conflicted and often clinically evil. Lancaster Dodd was one such character and earned him an Oscar nomination.

But in the end his raisin d’être were those roles that skirted the fine line from sinner to Saint. In Doubt he was the creepiest priest but his subtle inflection and a look of conciliation the viewer is never quite sure of any guilt. And his  Oscar win for Capote was deserved. His speech full of thanks and little of himself is a joy to watch below:

Additionally I commend how generous PSH was within his roles, a skill much lauded in the movie industry yet difficult to pin down. Think about Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams, Julianne Moore, Catherine Keener, Samantha Morton, Adam Sandler, Ryan Gosling and numerous other recipients of this generosity, who were allowed to shine.

Finally PSH was a master of using his form to imbue his screen characters with strength, weakness and left you feeling liberated but bereft.

I cannot comment about his private life, or his relationship with drugs. Our cinematic idols should not be confused with our paragons of moral ideal – a theme that PSH frequently mined in his role choices. Philip Seymour Hoffman will be sorely missed. But with a back catalogue as easily accessible and readily delightful as his, together with an unstudied engagement with his audience, he leaves us a treasured parting gift.


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