As the world eagerly anticipates The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2, I can’t shake my feelings of bittersweet serenity. Before I go any further, I don’t want any misconceptions regarding my thoughts on this franchise. I wasn’t the biggest fan of the first film. It felt like a half drawn canvas of a larger painting; though there were instances in which I saw why so many people have become huge fans of the franchise. I was unfamiliar with the source material going in but I had heard all the praise. For some reason, I didn’t connect with any of the characters or the world of Panem. To my surprise, I’ve liked both subsequent films more than the original. I’ve grown to appreciate the maturity and sincerity of the filmmaking. I found myself wrapped up in the ethical dilemmas of the protagonists. Like everyone else who is wrapped up in this worldwide phenomenon, I can’t wait for the final entry this November.
I’m somewhat saddened by the conclusion of this saga. My true bittersweet sadness comes from tragic circumstance behind the camera. Last February, Philip Seymour Hoffman, the actor behind the character of Plutarch Heavensbee, passed away. To be blunt, I was left in utter shock. I remember waking up that morning and feeling like I had been punched in the gut when I checked the big headlines on Facebook. I couldn’t bring myself to write anything on Hoffman’s passing. I didn’t want to seem like I was jumping on the proverbial bandwagon or capitalizing on a hot story. I wanted to be as candid and sincere as humanly possible. With The Hunger Games soon concluding, so to will the career of an extraordinarily gifted actor we lost far too soon. I’ve finally decided that now is an appropriate time for me to honor someone whose work I have always admired.
Even though he’s no longer with us, Hoffman has left behind a filmography as impressive as some actors with twice the amount of credited roles. I remember once when I was watching an episode of Inside the Actor’s Studio. I believe Hoffman himself was the guest but I distinctly remember something that host James Lipton retorted. He said that Philip Seymour Hoffman would one day be recognized as the finest actor of his generation. With a career spanning 22 years, I think Lipton was accurate in his assessment. No other actor in my lifetime as a film buff has gotten me more excited about any project with his mere association. Whether he was the lead, a supporting actor, or a featured player, Hoffman was incapable of delivering anything less than a stellar performance.
By no means do I think Heavensbee is one of Hoffman’s defining roles. It is however, one of his most significant and understated roles. The Hunger Games exists in a world that is much more exaggerated and extravagant than ours. Hoffman’s performances as Heavensbee possessed a grounded reality in a fantastical environment. He brought an appropriate balance to some of the political subtext that’s borrowed from history. I don’t know the extent of his appearance in the upcoming film but I can’t imagine being able to keep a dry eye seeing him for the last time on the big screen.
What makes film such an endearing form of entertainment is because of the immortality it provides. Legacies and careers live on for generations of film fans to admire and study. I’ll always be able to go back and watch his performances over and over again. All of his roles are memorable, but I would like to take a closer look at some of the highlights of his storied career. In retrospect, Hoffman was never typecast or placed into a label. He could literally do anything, play anyone, and show any emotion required that was needed to bring the page to life. His transformations were subtle but expertly executed. It could be something as simple as a cosmetic change. Hoffman’s brilliance as an actor came from what he could do beneath the surface. Changing his posture, his walk, his manner of speaking, etc.
Part of being an actor is being unafraid of any inhibitions. Hoffman notoriously had some demons but when he was in front of the camera they were hidden from the world. Most of his critical praise, while widespread across all his films, came from his dramatic roles. They’re worthy of praise but I always felt his comedic quirks were taken for granted. Take for example his role as Brandt in The Big Lebowski. For a film that’s as popular amongst a cult of fans as any, I’ve scarcely found those who singled out Hoffman. It’s not a big role and could be played by any number of actors. In many ways, he’s the most level character in the film but even then that’s stretching it. The way he reacts to the craziness around him helps make that role memorable. Something just as simple as his peculiar smile/laugh combo is enough to have me in hysterics.
Hoffman could also be out-and-out hilarious with the material he was given. In Charlie Wilson’s War, he plays the foul-mouthed CIA associate of Sen. Wilson. Working with a script written by Aaron Sorkin, Hoffman flies off the hand while carefully spewing out Sorkin’s trademark obscenities. It was a supporting role that proved to mainstream audiences he could spar with Hollywood heavyweights like Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts. His comedic material wasn’t always up to his level. Along Came Polly isn’t a film that I would recommend. For some inexplicable reason, Hoffman still shines brightly in it. It could have been an obvious joke (an overweight and paunch man playing basketball) but there’s much more that he provides.
The year following Charlie Wilson’s War, he went toe to toe with Meryl Streep of all people in Doubt. As a priest accused of child abuse, he walked a fine line in ambiguous intent. He was both suspect and likeable which makes for some very compelling drama. It takes a true master of the acting craft to be able to do this. His final confrontation with Streep is a sight to behold, an acting class in it of itself. His apprehensive nature isn’t one of suspect confidence but a result of constantly questioning his moral etiquette.
Hoffman had the opportunity to work with extraordinary directors and gifted co-stars. Many, including myself, cite him as “an actor’s actor.” That’s not an indictment of snobbery on his part. In a time where blockbusters have attracted some of the top names in Hollywood, Hoffman was no exception. Before he was Plutarch Heavensbee, he was Owen Davian in Mission Impossible 3. I would not have faulted Hoffman at all for phoning in that type of performance. It’s with that notion that I applaud his commitment to a rather one-dimensional villain. He’s intense throughout and genuinely frightening when he had to be. I could watch the opening scene between him and Tom Cruise on repeat and still feel the same adrenaline rush as I did on first viewing. I guess it reaffirms he would have made an excellent interpretation of Penguin in a future Batman film.
I could go on and on about Hoffman’s many roles. I think future generations will remember him fondest for his frequent collaborations with Paul T. Anderson. I point to his role in The Master as his finest achievement but this doesn’t distract from his other films with Anderson. I am not the biggest fan of Boogie Nights but Hoffman steals the movie. He plays Scotty, the closeted member of a group of porn filmmakers. He desperately wants to display his affection for star Dirk Diggler but equally wants his affection in return. When he comes onto Diggler and is rejected, it’s utterly heartbreaking. To be able to balance Scotty’s goofy demeanor with his fragility is nothing short of miraculous. I would regret it if I didn’t mention his work in Magnolia because it’s the most understated of his Anderson performances. No matter how much abuse he takes over the phone while caring for someone else’s family member, he remains composed. There’s never a moment where he explodes or becomes enraged. He’s always a caring individual in the face of adversity.
It speaks volumes of Hoffman that I didn’t even get to his Oscar-winning performance in Capote. I feel like others have already spoken at length about this so I don’t need to add-on. To close out this tribute, I’d like to once again reiterate the bittersweet feeling I have whenever I see advertising for the upcoming Mockingjay Part 2. I have severe doubts about whether or not I will bond with another actor to the same degree as I have done with Philip Seymour Hoffman. No other actor in my lifetime has made me laugh, cry, feel joy, feel regret, and feel hopeful alongside all of his characters. It’s tragic he’s no longer with us in body but I’ll leave you all with this quote from Doubt: “Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty. When you are lost, you are not alone.”