Nobody could mess with a Philip Seymour Hoffman performance. Reactions to his untimely death at age 46 sound the same shocked notes for that exact reason: Hoffman was so incredibly on the mark each time out that it seemed as though he was invincible.
In 2009, I saw Hoffman onstage as Iago in Peter Sellar’s atrocious post-modern off-Broadway update to “Othello,” in which the actor starred alongside John Ortiz. Characters spoke on cell phones and acted around a giant, amorphous blob of computer monitors for no apparent reason other than to add thinly conceived present-day signifiers. But Hoffman, as the scheming Iago, managed to provide a constant center of distraction with a mixture of gruff mannerisms and a focused, calculated tone: He was simultaneously menacing and pathetic, a fascinating duality often crucial to the effectiveness of Hoffman’s roles no matter what surrounded them.
This is a rare power in American movies. Like Sellar’s poorly conceived “Othello,” studio-driven product often reeks of recycled ideas in a sea of poor attempts at maintaining a contemporary feel. Nearly everything made on a large scale lacks any genuine risk. Hoffman rarely crept into this uglier side of the business, but when he did, it automatically became more interesting: In “Twister,” as the lovable goofball storm chaser Dusty, he elevated the material with a comic turn that almost turned its disaster movie plot into a secondary ingredient. His ghoulish turn as the unflappable arms dealer in “Mission Impossible III” made the cartoonish scenario into a legitimate threat, because the character seemed capable of just about anything by merely twitching his eyebrows. In “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” he landed a crucial role as a covert agent that perfectly fit his layered demeanor in every role: There’s always something more going on beneath that smirk. It’s somewhat fitting that the next “Hunger Games” installment may form his final screen appearance.
But a recent news headline announcing that “Hollywood mourns Philip Seymour Hoffman” sends the wrong message. Hoffman appeared in Hollywood movies but never became one with that community. In the most literal sense, he was pure New York, a ubiquitous figure who mingled downtown at various screenings and other events. Seemingly every local had a Hoffman story. In 2012, Indiewire hosted a screening of Kenneth Lonergan’s “Margaret,” and Hoffman was the first to arrive, hiding meekly beneath a baseball cap, just there to enjoy the show. Anyone who randomly encountered Hoffman in his natural habitat had a similar reaction: Not the usual “I though he was taller” routine, but something far deeper and unshakable: He was just so human.
Hoffman never surfaced in a superhero movie, nor did he lend his voice to animation (with the exception of the claymation “Mary and Max,” the opposite of a commercial proposition). He chose movies that fit his casual, frumpy demeanor, and he dominated them. Never blending in, Hoffman transcended the boundaries of every scene, sometimes with a soft, off-putting degree of restraint, and elsewhere blowing his top. He was his own special effect, a termite artist who could burrow into any material and softly coerce it into his terms.
Hoffman could take moments that should suffer from the parodic extremes of misconceived drama and make them real: He’s terribly pathetic in the opening shot of “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” pummeling Marisa Tomei doggy-style, but that moment sets the stage for a series of scenes in which he’s just as naked emotionally. As the devout caretaker in “Magnolia,” his eyes bulge out of his head as he literally explains the drama of the plot (“This is the scene of the movie where you help me out”), yet it’s almost like he’s begging us to play along, negotiating between the limitations of the material and the inherent power he brings to it. Hoffman frequently provided an access point for whatever story he happened to appear in. Even as the psychologically twisted Lancaster Dodd in “The Master,” Hoffman radiated a paternal quality that made it possible to soak in the atmosphere rather than hold it at arm’s length. As Lester Bangs in “Almost Famous,” he announced, “The only true currency in this world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.” In this regard, Hoffman was more than generous.
There are plenty of first-rate cases of Hoffman working his unassuming magic, from “Boogie Nights” to “Capote,” but one of the finer examples in which he melded perfectly with the material arrived when he directed himself. “Jack Goes Boating,” Hoffman’s 2010 adaptation of Robert Glaudini’s play, finds the actor playing an ultra-shy limo driver pining for the affections of the similarly awkward Connie (Amy Ryan) with the coaching of his more-than-confidant pal Clyde (John Ortiz). A gentler riff on the headcase romance of “Punch-Drunk Love,” the story of Jack overcoming his personal hardships is infused with the tender elegance of his presence: More than anything else, Hoffman’s closeups of his own face drive the story forward. The riveting climactic sequence finds Jack devastated, after inviting Connie over for a dinner party, when he accidentally burns the meal. Freaked out, he locks himself in the bathroom, only opening the door once Connie and his friends beckon him out by singing “Rivers of Babylon,” his favorite song. The premise is almost too silly and neatly sentimental to work, but Hoffman’s gradual transformation from harboring a pouty demeanor to displaying tentative optimism holds it together. Opening the door and facing Connie again, he admits, “Nobody ever cooked for me.”
“You cooked for me,” she says. The confidence that suddenly congeals in his expression speaks volumes about Hoffman’s lasting allure: He cooked for all of us.