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Philip Seymour Hoffman
On the day film fans everywhere were shocked by the news that one of modern cinema's most talented actors has died before his time, Slarek pays tribute to the great Philip Seymour Hoffman | 2 February 2014

46. What kind of age is that for anyone to die, whatever the cause? Of course it can be argued that our reaction to the deaths of actors, filmmakers or musicians is disproportionate to our relationship to them, which for the most part is not personal and confined to an admiration for their work. That we are shocked by such deaths makes a degree of sense, particularly when they die before their time, and when it is someone whose work we have grown up watching or listening to, there is an unreasonable tendency to take it personally. I remember my startled reaction to the news that Clash front-man Joe Strummer had died at 50 – I never met the man, but his music played such an important part in my late teenage years that it seemed somehow inconceivable that he would not outlive me and go on making music for a millennium or two.

What always hits home about such premature deaths is the sense of waste, of the great things that these men and women would surely have done had they lived and continued to work in their chosen field. Such is certainly the case with Philip Seymour Hoffman, a hugely talented character actor whose untimely death was announced just a few hours ago, news I responded to with the same sort of incredulous double-take I experienced when I heard of Joe Strummer's passing.

There's a lovely moment in the 1982 My Favourite Year (a film, it has to be said, that is overflowing with lovely moments) in which over-the-hill film idol Alan Swann – a truly glorious performance by the late Peter O'Toole – loudly proclaims his reason for not being able to perform on live television: "I am not an actor, I am a movie star!" Philip Seymour Hoffman was just the opposite, as despite appearing in some highly successful mainstream movies, Hoffman could never be described as a movie star. But by thunder, he was an actor.

I'm not going to run off a detailed biography here – you won't have to look far to find one today – but instead feel the urge to recall some of my personal favourite Hoffman performances. He was an actor of extraordinary presence and lightness of touch, and despite being rarely cast in lead roles, his ability bring every character he played so vividly to life allowed him to quietly steal scenes from even the biggest of stars.

While I very likely first saw him in Scent of a Woman, I first really noticed him in Jan de Bont's Twister, a noisy effects-fest rendered rather engaging by a cast comprised almost totally of talented character actors. Hoffman played Dustin Davis, the most energetically upbeat member of a team of energetically upbeat storm chasers led by cheery Bill Paxton. More than anyone else here, he seemed to be loving every minute of his time on screen, which in turn made Dustin the most enjoyable character.

But it was his supporting role as pathetic hanger-on Scotty in Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights the following year that landed him his first major critical plaudits (it's worth noting that he was also in Anderson's debut feature Hard Eight, but I caught this retrospectively) and understandably so. Although a supporting role, it's Scotty that made the biggest impression on me on my first viewing and it was Hoffman I would talk about when recommending the film to others.

If I were choosing favourite Hoffman roles – and I am, dammit – then sitting somewhere near the top would have to be his joyously funny turn as personal assistant Brandt in the Coen brothers' The Big Lebowski. OK, this is a favourite film anyway, one whose every scene is peppered with delights, but I could watch it endlessly for Hoffman's performance alone, from his forced smiling tolerance and “ha ha, very good sir” responses to The Dude's flip comments when being given a tour of the Lebowski mansion, to the hilariously mournful stance he adopts when Lebowski's young wife Bunny is kidnapped.

The very same year he scored again as a lonely obscene phone caller in Todd Solondz's Happiness, another personal favourite from the late 1990s, and the following year he was unassumingly superb in Paul Thomas Anderson's astonishing ensemble piece Magnolia. Here he played Phil Parma, personal nurse to terminally ill Earl Partridge (a memorable performance by an ageing and unwell Jason Robards), whose estranged son Parma takes it upon himself to track down and re-unite with his father. His upbeat banter with the cantankerous Partridge and the sequence in which he places a telephone order for a range of adult magazines (see the film to understand why) are perfectly pitched.

He provided solid support in the likes of Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love, David Mamet's State and Main and Anthony Minghella's The Talented Mr. Ripley, and if I were forced at gunpoint to choose a single role of his that I wasn't enthralled by, it would have to be sleazy reporter Freddy Lounds in Red Dragon, a remake that sits in the shadow of Michael Mann's extraordinary Manhunter in every respect. Here I almost felt as if Hoffman himself was unhappy about playing the role, which had been nailed to perfection by Stephen Lang in Mann's original. Feel free to disagree and enjoy it nonetheless.

He finally won an Oscar for his under-the-skin performance as author Truman Capote in the 2005 biographical drama Capote, and two years later gave a lovely and typically understated performance against Laura Linney in Tamara Jenkins' too little seen The Savages. But the following year he played what for me was probably his finest screen role of all as Caden Cotard, a theatre director who wins a MacArthur grant and embarks on a project of astonishing ambition that sees art and reality meld and interchange in Charlie Kaufman's fabulously realised Synecdoche, New York.

Since then he has continued to shine in films such as Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, Mike Nichols' Charlie Wilson's War, George Clooney's The Ides of March and his self-directed Jack Goes Boating. I was personally aching to see what sort of roles he would land and how he would interpret them as he moved into middle-age and find it hard to believe these are films that we are now never going to see. To paraphrase a famous conversation that took place between Billy Wilder and William Wyler on the death or Ernst Lubitsch: No more Philip Seymour Hoffman – worse than that, no more Philip Seymour Hoffman pictures.

Philip Seymour Hoffman RIP.