The Master

Remembering Philip Seymour Hoffman

The late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died in February at the age of forty-six, was an actor of genius. In its obituary, the New York Times claimed that he “was perhaps the most ambitious and widely admired American actor of his generation.” One should add, however, that Hoffman’s ambition had to operate within the cramped zone reserved for “character actors.” He was disqualified from most of Hollywood’s leading-man roles by his looks, which were pudgy, rumpled, and—depending on the role and the cinematography—sometimes sinister or prematurely old. I know it sounds shallow to describe an actor’s scope according to his physique, but it’s naïve to pretend that sex appeal doesn’t make a crucial difference in the way a film career proceeds. (Actresses suffer this typecasting a thousand times more than men do.) Because of his looks, Christian Bale can be either a leading man or a character actor as the occasion demands. He can pack on the pounds for American Hustle or starve himself into wraithhood for The Machinist, but he also has the option of reverting to his handsome self for romantic roles. Hoffman didn’t have that option.

What he had instead was the greatest range of any character actor of his generation. His filmography is stupendous in both its length and its variety. He played smug, slimy creeps in The Talented Mr. Ripley, ...

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About the Author

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.