Excellence, Not Ego: Remembering The Great Philip Seymour HoffmanS

What surprised me the most when I heard the news of Phillip Seymour Hoffman's death was that his passing ran so counter to the reputation he had earned over his 25 years as an actor. Dependable, intelligent, consistently remarkable: These are the qualities we had come to associate with Hoffman's work. His death at the age of 46 from an apparent drug overdose was the opposite of all that. It felt thoughtless and irresponsible, leaving behind three children and a partner. Hoffman's career had been about striving for excellence, and reaching it. His death simply feels like a waste.

For all his great performances, what's probably most amazing about Hoffman is how few mediocre ones there were. All great actors—especially those of the character-actor/everyman variety—have to do their share of throwaway, just-for-the-paycheck gigs where they bring their natural gravitas or familiar persona to mediocre studio material. But since 1996—when he first hooked up with longtime collaborator Paul Thomas Anderson in Hard Eight—Hoffman has a frighteningly small amount of roles that you could point to as unmemorable. In terms of batting average, his may be the best of the last three decades among steadily working actors. Even the potentially forgettable parts were terrific in his hands. He was the best villain in the Mission: Impossible series, giving Tom Cruise a worthy nemesis at last in Mission: Impossible III. And even if Plutarch Heavensbee is the dumbest name of any character he's ever played, his portrayal of the gamemaker in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire helped give that movie its sense of grownup dread. Hoffman never played down to the material, nor did he try to artificially elevate popcorn fare with theatrical flair. No matter how big a star he got, he kept that everyman quality, figuring out how to make roles distinctive without being showy about it.

It might seem weird to start off an appreciation of Hoffman with his franchise work, but it's simply a way to suggest how deep his catalog is. He has a whole litany of overlooked indies that are going to shock people once they catch up to them. He's terrifically melancholy as a violinist married to Catherine Keener in A Late Quartet. He's plenty of fun as a freewheeling American DJ in the 1960s British comedy Pirate Radio. He's a sweetheart as a soft-spoken screenwriter in David Mamet's Hollywood satire State and Main. And he's absolutely volcanic as the soulless, drug-abusing scumbag Andy Hanson in Sidney Lumet's final film, the criminally underrated thriller Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. It's a portrait of everyday evil that's so corrosive precisely because Hoffman almost makes you feel for the guy while at the same time leaving no doubt what a bastard he is.

To praise an actor like Hoffman, you'd probably dip into meaningless clichés such as saying that he "disappeared" into his roles. But that old chestnut actually applies to Hoffman in that he was a performer who knew how to immerse himself into characters without wowing you with technique. Yes, his Oscar-winning turn as Truman Capote in Capote is impressive in terms of pure craft, expertly copying the author's demeanor and speech patterns, but it's actually a performance of feeling, not mechanics. When I think of Hoffman's Capote, I remember an ambitious writer who learns to put away his sympathies for the cold-blooded advancement of his career—I only after-the-fact remember it was also a pretty good imitation of the guy. That to me is the best definition of "disappearing": putting aside the ego to focus on an audience's connection with a character you've constructed.

Like all great character actors, he played types. He could be the larger-than-life blowhard (Punch-Drunk Love, Almost Famous). He could be the ineffectual wimp (Happiness, 25th Hour, Magnolia). But he was at his best when he seemed to mix those qualities, playing characters who came across one way and then made you wonder what else was inside them. Capote will be his best-remembered creation—one of Hoffman's happiest legacies is that, rare among great actors, he won his Oscar for the right role—but we can also point to Freddie Miles, the insinuating, faux-charming stranger in The Talented Mr. Ripley. Also worthy of mention is his theater-director character from Synecdoche, New York, which outside of Inside Llewyn Davis may be the greatest onscreen portrait of an existential artistic crisis of this century. It might contain Hoffman's strongest everyman performance—so much so that because many people consider the movie a triumph for its talented writer-director Charlie Kaufman, it's easy to miss how profoundly sad and troubling Hoffman's performance is. If Kaufman's dazzling metaphors for the meaningless of life animate the story, Hoffman gives Synecdoche, New York its despondent heart.

And then there's The Master, again an example of where his marvelous portrayal got overshadowed by those around him. Paul Thomas Anderson's storytelling was stunning and Joaquin Phoenix's performance is one for the ages, but Hoffman is the film's quiet, looming mystery, playing a man whose false modesty about his own greatness conceals layers we're not sure we want to unravel. The Master may be Hoffman's most overtly flamboyant performance, but there's also a lot of steely control in there—flamboyance tempered by calm fire and cool intelligence. The movie wouldn't work without the teamwork between him and Phoenix: It's a marvelous dance that goes on.

I'm perhaps leaving out your own favorite Hoffman performance, which only speaks to how great an actor he was. (I haven't even mentioned how terrific he is in the forthcoming A Most Wanted Man. And I'm completely neglecting his work on the stage, which I never saw and really regret.) I've been struck by how many colleagues have reacted to his passing with anger—almost as if they're upset that he somehow betrayed us by dying. I understand that feeling: I think I took him for granted, which you should never do with a world-class performer. Lately, Moneyball has been rerunning on cable, and I always check in during the parts that Hoffman is in. You may not even remember, but he plays Art Howe, the disgruntled manager of the Oakland A's who's wholly unsupportive of Billy Beane's efforts to rebuild the club using sabermetrics. Each time I watched the movie now, I noted how I had completely overlooked Hoffman's great performance as the beaten-down, fading coach: It seemed like an insignificant part, but Hoffman had made it special, not through style but just understated authority. He knew exactly what he was doing, even if I had been too distracted by Brad Pitt and the rest of the movie to notice. I'm sorry I wasn't smart enough to pick up on it the first time. And I'm even sorrier he's gone.

Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.