Film and Television Features

Philip Seymour Hoffman: 1967-2014

Just over a week on from when we first heard the news and the untimely passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman seems no less shocking, and, perhaps more painfully, like a devastating loss to cinema. No matter the size or genre (or even quality) of film, you could always rely on Hoffman to provide a magnetic, pitch-perfect performance, and over the course of his career, its been a fascinating journey to see the variety of roles he chose

Rather than dwell on the details of his death, we, the contributors to No Ripcord's film section, wanted to celebrate his life and work, and offer our personal highlights and experiences of seeing him on screen. 

In my particular case, Hoffman's work is very much tied into my love of film as a whole. Coming of age at the turn of the millennium, I was well-positioned to take advantage of the miniature 'golden age' that took place in American cinema around that time. Although fairly diverse in form and content, the stream of dark, genuinely adult drama that was released around that time was tied together by a number of common threads, a sense of questioning American and Western cultural values being one, doing this while still managing to be entertaining was another, and it seemed that a supporting turn from Philip Seymour Hoffman was a third. In the space of less than a couple of years he could be seen in cinemas in the likes of The Big Lebowski, Happiness and Magnolia, and even in fairly quiet, traditionally non-showy roles (Jeffrey Lebowski's personal assistant Brandt springs particularly to mind here), he commanded attention whenever he was on screen. To an extent, it could be argued that the contrasting nature of these roles, within such a short space of time, allowed the perception of them to rather bleed together and for them influence each other - Freddie, the brilliantly odious American abroad in The Talented Mr Ripley might actually have been in the right, morally speaking, but seeing Hoffman in that role shortly after the brutally unpleasant (yet understandably, heartbreakingly lonely) pervert phone caller in Happiness, made it so much easier to root against him (as we were expected to do), while the influence of Happiness - a film that's still largely unchallenged in its ability to mine the darkest material for both humour and bleak drama - (as well as his previous work with Paul Thomas Anderson, as the rather sad figure of Scotty in Boogie Nights) hung over his playing the likeable heart of Magnolia to make that film seem even more audacious and odd.

Since then, his career has offered many highs; his Best Actor win for Capote is one of the few times I've agreed with The Academy, only a few months ago his presence enlivened the otherwise fairly torpid Mockingjay, and while I never had the privilege of seeing him on stage, his direction of the intense and claustrophobic prison drama Jesus Hopped the A Train at the Donmar in London showed just how versatile his talent was. But, to me, he'll always be most strongly tied with those films from the late nineties. His passing adds a cruel final punctuation mark to confirm that that period of mainstream experimentation is most definitely over and done with (no studio would take a bet on something as ambitious, and slightly bonkers, as Magnolia today), but it's still an incredible legacy of work to leave behind, and those films were made all the richer by his appearing in them.  

Mark Davison, Film and TV Editor



I was never too fond of Almost Famous. In my mind, the entire film serves as fodder for cliche, classic rock worship and a booster for Rolling Stone subscription sales. The darkness of the time period is mostly glazed over with a sheen of nostalgia, and that never really sat right with me. Particularly, the rock stars portrayed in the film are thin and idealised, and when they are flawed, it's sort of palatable, banal flawed rather than an inert brokenness. Yet every time it's on TV, I always manage to linger around long enough for a moment with Philip Seymour Hoffman's Lester Bangs, usually the phone call scene. In all honesty, when Cameron Crowe wrote Bangs into the script, he probably envisioned some sort of incendiary mentor-type, supplying our wavering protagonist with a much needed fiery pep-talk just as he's about to give up.

Truly, anyone who's read about Bangs knows this is not his typical m.o. - Hoffman knew as much. Instead, he plays down Bangs' combustible nature and lads somewhere closer to the insecure, lonely man he really was. In doing so, Hoffman quickly changes the scene from pick-me-up exchange to something quieter and more tender - a moment where two socially maladjusted people writhe in each other's distress and somehow find moral support in the process. Looking back at it, I'd like to think there's a bit more of Bangs in that scene than of Hoffman, but I can't help but feel he may have been playing the role from a very real, personal place. Honestly, I don't think I'll be able to look at those scenes, or really any other Hoffman role, the same way ever again. In any case, like Bangs, Philip Seymour Hoffman was taken before his time, cut down by tragic circumstances. He will be sorely missed.

Andy Ciraulo



It feels kind of weird to admit that the first image that popped into my head after I learned of the very unfortunate passing of beloved actor Philip Seymour Hoffman was of him hunched over, sweating through a tank top, growling lewd obscenities at some pooor woman over the phone*. Of course I was also very sad. Then when I first sat down to write this short, inadequate obituary, I suddenly realised I saw Happiness and The Master for the first time in the same year, only a few months apart actually, and that that should mean something.

Here's what I concluded. Most words shed over Hoffman before and after his death have rejoiced over his spectacular range as an actor and mine are no different. It's unquestionable his entire oeuvre is a complex effigy of talent. However, it's Happiness and The Master in particular that gives us an actor masterfully embodying duelling sides of humanity. In Happiness, in probably his most underrated performance, Hoffman plays the chronically nervous deviant Allen. Among Hoffman's other early roles as enigmatic weirdos, his part in Boogie Nights being one of them, Allen stands out as the most hopeless. He's monotone, depressed, completely driven by his bizarre sexual impulses and profoundly awkward.

About fourteen years later in The Master, Hoffman is Lancaster Dodd, a stentorian leader who is self-possessed and knowledgeable. He is a man in control. I look at Lancaster Dodd as somebody I wish to be. Then I revisit Allen and know he's the more plausible outcome. It takes an intimate familiarity with darkness to bring these characters to life. So when I thought about those two films, I realised it should be near impossible for one person to play both of those roles so close to the bone. But there is is. That is a talent that this world is weaker withoud.


*His role as Allen from the movie Happiness for the uninitiated.

Doug Ciraulo 



Almost Famous was my first introduction to Philip Seymour Hoffman. I was sixteen when I watched it for the first time and found it so adorable that I went to see it twice. Youth is one of the loveliest times in a person's life. Usually the awareness of that fact only comes later with maturity. Youth is a time for discovery, dreams and laughter. Growing up may be dramatic, especially as we realise profoundly the irreversibility of it.

Hoffman's Lester Bangs acted as something as a mentor to Patrick Fugit's William Miller, being the older guy who knew exactly what he (and us) were feeling because he had been through that himself. I immediately liked him. He had no illusions about life but he knew that the best way one can find that out is through gaining one's own life experience. He was like the older brother showing us the way. After seeing him play that part, I kept a watchful eye on his career.

Hoffman was particularly good playing villains or misfit characters, characterized by his rich voice and a very secure charisma which could alternate between wisdom and rage.
The family of the 7th art shines a little less brightly as Hoffman's star disappears. However, all the characters that he brought to the world will keep delighting us in the endless magic of the screen. 

Natália Costa



In probably the same fashion as a lot of people my age, I discovered Phillip Seymour Hoffman when I was a teenager discovering film after film on home release. Passing rapidly through from the video store age to the cheap VHS sell-off to my first DVDs, I was rapidly consuming films of all kinds and developed a particular taste for the 90s American independent scene.

Throughout that period of time, a particularly strong time for the American character actor and ensemble casts, films like Boogie Nights, The Big Lebowski, Happiness, Magnolia and The Talented Mr. Ripley had astounded me and became all-time favourites of mine, safely remaining so to this day. Phillip Seymour Hoffman stood out to me from a crowd of emerging talent and by the time of Love Liza, I was buying movies based on his name alone.

Despite this long admiration for his talent, it has unfortunately taken Hoffman’s tragic passing for me to consider as to what qualities it was in particular that I saw in him that I was subconsciously fascinated and delighted by. When I was younger, I desperately wanted to be an actor and it was my first gateway into film fandom. Ever a realist, I also quickly switched my attentions away from that craft to those behind-the-scenes when it became apparent that I didn’t fit the mould of the leading actors I admired, particularly James Dean.

In the most memorable of his aforementioned supporting roles, Phillip Seymour Hoffman is slimy, sleazy, slovenly, grotesque but above all, human. Some of the actors I admire the most, like Marlon Brando, had career-best performances in films like Last Tango in Paris when breaking down the barriers of their vanity, displaying the courage to lay their emotions naked, acting for the first time with total freedom from inhibition and existing in a raw, vulnerable state. Yet, all of a sudden, here was an actor, a supporting actor at that, who was consistently those intangible things, fearlessly confident in the pursuit of character.

With time, it seemed as though that could be any character, Hoffman’s lack of vanity is matched only by his versatility. In learning of his passing, I began to look over his impressive filmography and remembered fully a completely wonderful range of great films and an even further extending gallery of memorable character portraits. I think it’s testament to the spirit of such an actor to mention that there are films throughout Hoffman’s career in which he is probably the only memorable thing, even when in a small role. As well as seemingly never coasting, the variety within the roles he took on is quite staggering. Imagine possessing not only the ability but also the audacity to follow the disgustingly humorous Sandy Lyle in Along Came Polly with a beautiful depiction of the mannerisms and charismatic confidence of Truman Capote in an Oscar-Winning lead performance. It’s hard to think of many actors who would dare to entertain trying continual reinvention, let alone having the courage to try such things within a cruel and fickle industry.

It is not with the hyperbolic words of an obituary that I state that I find Phillip Seymour Hoffman to be one of the all-time greats of film acting; it is because it is now glaringly obvious to me that he carved that legacy with a great talent, which grew over time. It is with confidence that I can say that two of his later films Synecdoche, New York and The Master are in my opinion, two of the great cinematic masterpieces of the early 21st Century and ones that will be greatly admired for generations.

We were tasked with choosing a Phillip Seymour Hoffman film that is personal to us and I could have chosen many for a great many reason and yet ultimately, I have chosen none. My personal perspective comes from viewing Hoffman’s career as a whole and realising with the clarity of hindsight that he was everything that should be admired in an actor. Great artists are not ruled by fear or vanity but display a deep dedication to their craft and an ambition to endlessly pursue a truth, an emotion, a moment, a revelation and are ready, always ready to reinvent themselves, push further and forge a new path as their artistic progression requires. I have no doubt that Hoffman would have continued to grow as an artist, something that makes his untimely passing all the more tragic. 

Ryan Finnigan



In summer 2003, at eighteen, I was working part-time for a video store, and I remember anticipating the DVD release of Paul Thomas Anderson's resplendently quirky Punch-Drunk Love. Originally, the hype surrounded the vulnerable performance from comedic man-child Adam Sandler. Yet it was Philip Seymour Hoffman as the spirited swindler, "Mattress Man" Dean Trumbell, with the Utah bedding business as a front for a sex hotline, who emerged as the film's greatest entertainer even in a peripheral role that netted him less than ten minutes of on-screen time. My introduction to the animated, versatile character actor seemed to follow a similar theme in forthcoming years, as I usually happened upon his winning presence by accident. Considering his contributions to The Big Lebowski (as Mr. Lebowski's well-mannered assistant), Boogie Nights (as the awkward boom mic operator of Jack Horner's technical crew), the film adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley (as the fashionable Freddie Miles), or Charlie Kaufman's brilliantly stupefying Synecdoche, New York (dominating the screen as haunted director Caden Cotard), Hoffman's dramatic range captured clear-cut and crooked characters alike with such vivacity. In the case of 2012's The Master, the last film in which I saw him, his magniloquent magneticism in the role of the L. Ron Hubbard stand-in Lancaster Dodd forced his supporting performance into a leading one. In simply regarding the diversity of Hoffman's personae, aspiring actors should emulate the level of ambition he consistently brought to the medium.

Grant Phipps



I first became aware of Phillip Seymour Hoffman in the movie Scent of a Woman, playing the cause of all Chris O’Donnell’s troubles at the snooty prep school they both attend. Hoffman’s character came from money, O’Donnell’s didn’t. A few years earlier, James Spader would have been cast in the role, delivering a typically one-note, child of privilege performance. Hoffman plays simultaneous layers of pride, shame, smarminess and venality with such skill, that I recall physically recoiling at his presence. When he popped up in films soon after, I had a residual disgust for him and didn’t want to know. But as he developed in range and prominence, I realized how his mastery had gotten under my skin, and how anyone who could get you to hate him so effectively must know what he is doing.

Like all of the greats, Hoffman made a lasting impression in every part he played. So many vivid characters stand out, but when you say his name, I think of Lester Bangs from Almost Famous and Gust Avrakotos from Charlie Wilson’s War. Maybe it’s because those movies were kind of mediocre, but Hoffman pops out of the screen like he’s in fucking Avatar. Who can’t love Gust’s dressing down of his boss, ending with smashing his window, for the second time. It was a beautiful thing. So was Hoffman – perhaps the best actor of his generation, just getting started. It makes me sick to think of all the hacks, in movies and in music, who now insist on calling themselves “artists”, when we see how the real thing can suffer to enrich our lives. The word, like so many others, no longer has any meaning. And since the artist label is so cheap, what do we call an actor like Phillip Seymour Hoffman? You let me know. 

Alan Shulman