RIP Philip Seymour Hoffman, an Actor Who Made You Believe

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Feb. 2 2014 3:01 PM

RIP Philip Seymour Hoffman, an Actor Who Made You Believe

The death of Philip Seymour Hoffman hurts like few recent celebrity passings I can think of. Well, like one of them: the death last summer of James Gandolfini. Both Hoffman and Gandolfini were fantastic actors, the sort of faces who'd make you say, "Hmm, maybe I'll have to see that," when they popped up in trailers. Both doted on their young children, and it stings to think about them right now.

But Gandolfini, for all his greatness, will forever be linked to one role. He spent eight years playing Tony Soprano, and that was after a couple years of typecasting as Italian-American Tough Guy No. 6. If you comb through social media today, you see movie fans tearing up over Hoffman and rarely focusing on any one role. The man could play psychopathic toughs (Mission: Impossible III), frustrated artists (Synecdoche, New York), sociopathic intellectuals (The Master), gay intellectuals (Capote), gay spazes (Boogie Nights), slobs (Along Came Polly), and jerks (Hard Eight).

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He was the rare actor who could be cast in a key role without giving away what kind of character he was playing. Here I'm thinking of the latest Hunger Games movie, where Hoffman's cast in a role that requires him to be a villain before becoming a heroic turncoat. Lots of other actors would be ill-fitting in one of those roles. You see James Woods in a movie, and you know he's going to end up wearing the black hat. You saw Hoffman—and you had no clue.

My Slate colleagues are writing up their remembrances of the actor, so if one of us doesn't mention your favorite role, maybe somebody else will. I'm haunted by Hoffman's performance in Synecdoche, New York, especially because it put him in makeup to let him play an age that he'll never reach. But as a politics reporter, I adored Hoffman's portrayal of Gust Avrakotos in Charlie Wilson's War. The scene that seems to have been uploaded most frequently by fans is this one, the chewing-out of a WASP superior (John Slattery, pre-Mad Men) after he denied Avrakotos the assignment he'd earned.

This is the sort of monologue that Aaron Sorkin (who wrote the script) always gives his rogue heroes. Jeff Daniels' role in The Newsroom consists of scene after scene of this stuff. But look at what Hoffman does with it, moving gingerly from curse words to distraction to convincing arguments that he should have the job. (Movie-buff bonus: When Gust says that without his intrigue in Greece, "Papandreou wins that election," he's referring to the crisis and coup that was the basis of Costa-Gavras' Z.) "By the way, water goes over a dam and under a bridge" is a put-down you could imagine coming from any Sorkin hero, but coming from Hoffman it sounds earned.

Hoffman had a lot to do in that movie, and the script gave him plenty of lecture-lessons that could have sounded corny. He made you believe in them. 

Read more on Philip Seymour Hoffman.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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