I don't remember the first time I saw Philip Seymour Hoffman on film. I imagine it was probably his supporting role in Scent of a Woman, a movie that was completely and rightfully dominated by the hoo-ah! bravado of Al Pacino. It was a small part, the cowardly spoiled rich kid whose weaselly demeanor Hoffman was particularly adept at embodying. That was a long time ago, and I confess the actor didn't leave any kind of an impression on me; I was young, and hadn't developed the palate for appreciating the craft of acting yet. Next I saw him in Twister, which is, let's be honest, a terrible movie. What I remember from that film is Hoffman's hilarious and vaguely stoned tornado chaser Dusty. I still find myself quoting him years later, whether I crave sustenance or if someone is going to rue the day.
Boogie Nights was the movie that put him on the map for me. The ensemble is full of wonderful performances, but none so affecting as Hoffman as Scotty J., whose unrequited love for Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) leads to a scene both tragic and almost unbearably awkward. Scotty sits in the car he bought to impress Dirk, rejected and heartbroken, and cries and calls himself stupid over and over again. Director Paul Thomas Anderson lingers on Hoffman longer than is even remotely comfortable for the audience, until Scotty's pain becomes our own. This is the kind of role that Hoffman played time and again: the outsider, the misfit, the loser, the brokenhearted.
Hoffman was the consummate character actor. He didn't have the leading man good looks of a George Clooney or the chiseled body of a Brad Pitt, but his almost limitless versatility guaranteed that any role he played, he absolutely owned. He won an Oscar for one of his rare leading roles as Truman Capote, a role that was so much more than a simple imitation of the author's unique physical quirks. I find it endlessly amusing that the role he chose after the indie Capote was the villain in the very Hollywood Mission: Impossible 3; this is a role that Hoffman chose to underplay where many actors would have chewed the scenery to pieces. The result is a menacing, believable villain that elevates the film.
When I think of Hoffman the actor I think of desperation. It seemed that every character he played was desperate for something: desperate for love, money, redemption. It was never on the nose with Hoffman. He was an actor of incredible subtlety, though he wasn't above a little bombast. And he could be so cool, like rock critic Lester Bangs in Almost Famous, or sleazy mattress man Dean Trumbell in Punch-Drunk Love.
Much has been said of his untimely death, and I won't get into it other than to say that I'm deeply saddened. I'm saddened for the loss of all those potential Philip Seymour Hoffman roles that we won't get to see. He was only 46, and who knows how many more times he would have graced the screen? As I look over his filmography, I see many great performances, but the list is too damn short.