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Philip Seymour Hoffman, RIP

By Rich Heldenfels Published: February 2, 2014

I began noticing Philip Seymour Hoffman in movies in the mid '90s. There was a showy part in "Nobody's Fool" with Paul Newman and a small but scary role in Paul Thomas Anderson's "Hard Eight." The latter, with Hoffman as a gambler who in ways great and small projected cynicism and menace, was especially memorable -- although I had not yet consistently put a name with a face.

That would come slowly, as Hoffman had this way of erasing what you knew of him from other roles and making you start from scratch as an audience; so it was that in "Boogie Nights," another collaboration with Anderson (much as he would work again with Newman), Hoffman was an entirely different soul, sad and lost and desperate -- some notes that he would hit again with Anderson in "Magnolia," by which time his name was fixed -- and I would nod happily to see him in "The Talented Mr. Ripley" (where his aggressive, grim insights and arrogance made him a perfect foil to Matt Damon's deliberately bland Ripley) and "State and Main," or to watch him inhabit Lester Bangs in "Almost Famous." So much of that movie's basic, sunny optimism ran against the real Bangs's belief -- and the idea that you cannot be friends with people you cover should be engraved on every journalist's diploma -- but Hoffman made you believe there was value in Bang's system even if Cameron Crowe did not accept it.

And think, then, of what followed: "Empire Falls," "Capote," villainous entertainment in "Mission Impossible III," working with Sidney Lumet in the darkly enthralling "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead," "The Savages," pretty much taking over "Charlie Wilson's War" (in which he is, in a way, Lester Bangs again, a harsh voice of truth, only this time he is proven right), "Doubt," "The Ides of March," "Moneyball," insanely good in "The Master," and, in "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire," convincing in a role that is fundamentally preposterous.

There was an Oscar in there, of course, and the expectation of more. Even though it has seemed lately that Hoffman has been around forever, Guardian critic David Thomson noted in 2009 that Hoffman was seven years younger than Sean Penn and three years younger than Johnny Depp. But it had a way of projecting much older because of the emotions he could tap, both the sorrow and the rage that come with failure-inspired wisdom.

Thomson also worried in 2009 that Hoffman had been coasting, still good but not completely committed to a role -- a worry that should have gone away with "The Master," where he is ferociously committed. (It is as if he and Joaquin Phoenix both turned to Anderson and said, "You think Daniel Day-Lewis is fearless? Look at what we have.") But now he is dead, and we will not have years to ponder either his commitment or his skill in many other roles. But we don't have to play "what might have been," either. Because his resume as it exists is formidable -- a case of a man stepping into studio movies and indie efforts, of facing off against actors from all levels of stardom, and still, most of the time, making you realize that he is there, too, and is more than worth the remembering.

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