It was clear, at least since he won the Oscar in 2006 for “Capote,” that Philip Seymour Hoffman was an unusually fine actor. Really though, it was clear long before that, depending on when and where you started paying attention.
Maybe it was when he and John C. Reilly burned up the stage at the Circle in the Square in the 2000 revival of Sam Shepard’s “True West.” Or maybe it was even earlier, in the wrenching telephone scene in “Magnolia,” the disturbing telephone scenes in “Happiness,” the sad self-loathing of “Boogie Nights” or the smug self-possession of “The Talented Mr. Ripley” that brought the news of his special combination of talent, discipline and fearlessness.
Further evidence is not hard to find. Mr. Hoffman worked a lot over the past 15 years or so — in ambitious independent movies, Hollywood blockbusters and theater productions on and beyond Broadway — and nearly always did something memorable. (If you remember anything about the 2004 romantic comedy“Along Came Polly,” for instance, it is likely to be Mr. Hoffman’s terrible basketball skills and the equally dubious romantic advice he gives to Ben Stiller in that film.)
His dramatic roles in middle-sized movies (“Capote,” “25th Hour,""Doubt,""Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,""The Savages” and “Synecdoche, New York,” to keep the list at a manageable half-dozen for now) were distinguished by how far he was willing to go into the souls of flawed, even detestable characters. As the heavy, the weird friend or the volatile co-worker in a big commercial movie he could offer not only comic relief but also the specific pleasure that comes from encountering an actor who takes his art seriously no matter the project. He may have specialized in unhappiness, but you were always glad to see him.
Mr. Hoffman’s gifts were widely celebrated while he was alive. But the shock of his death on Sunday revealed, too soon and too late, the astonishing scale of his greatness and the solidity of his achievement. We did not lose just a very good actor. We may have lost the best one we had. He was only 46, and his death, apparently from a drug overdose, foreshortened a career that was already monumental.
We will be denied his Lear, his Prospero, his James Tyrone in another “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” (He was Jamie in a 2003 production of that play.) But he had already, in the last few years, begun to shift from troubled adults to tragic patriarchs. His Willy Loman in the 2012 Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” was a scalding, operatic depiction of vanity, self-delusion and raw emotional need, conveyed with force and delicacy sufficient both to deliver the play’s message and to overcome its sentimentality.
What he did in “The Master,” his fifth film with the writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, was even grander. It may take the world a while to catch up with that journey into dark, uncharted zones of the American character, but once it does it will discover, in Lancaster Dodd, an archetype of corrupted idealism, entrepreneurial zeal and authentic spiritual insight.
But also, as that character likes to say, with ostentatious modesty, of himself: just a man. Dodd is flesh and blood, appetite and imagination, a precisely rendered creature of his place and time. Mr. Hoffman’s diction, his barreling physicality, his displays of Rotarian jollity and earnest intellectualism establish Dodd as an exemplary (if eccentric) postwar American, an expression of the same curious cultural ferment that produced Willy Loman.
Of course “The Master” is after something more than reimagined history. Like Dodd himself, it wants to penetrate the perennial mysteries of the human personality, one specimen at a time. Dodd is a healer, a con artist and a self-proclaimed prophet. He is also, perhaps above all, an actor: a performer, an impromptu singer and stand-up comedian, a man with a Method. He calls it the Cause, but his technique of psychological exploration, based on the excavation of memory and the opening up of barricaded emotional territory, shows clear affinities with the process most stage and screen actors use to find their way into a character.
Mr. Hoffman’s way — not necessarily affiliated with any particular school or ideology, and above all the product of his own restless intelligence and relentless drive — took him further and deeper than most of his colleagues would be willing to venture.
Lancaster Dodd could have been a familiar type: a charming, slippery, charlatan. Mr. Hoffman made him more than that. One of his earliest scenes is an interview — part therapy, part interrogation — with Freddie Quell, a disturbed veteran played by Joaquin Phoenix. The unmistakable rumble of Mr. Hoffman’s voice conveys both sadism and compassion: Dodd’s simultaneous urges to help, to seduce and to dominate his new protégé. Later, when Dodd makes a toast at his daughter’s wedding banquet, we see both his arrogance and his insecurity, and catch a flicker of the loneliness that feeds his insatiable and destructive hunger for love.
Dodd at once invites our judgment — he does terrible things in the service of questionable ends — even as Mr. Hoffman compels our admiration. His goal seemed to be not just the psychological truth that has long been the baseline criterion of post-Method acting, but a moral uncertainty that remains too fraught and frightening for many of us, in art or in life, to engage.
This is not just a matter of seeking out gray areas or mapping ambiguities. Hoffman’s characters exist, more often than not, in a state of ethical and existential torment. They are stuck on the battleground where pride and conscience contend with base and ugly instincts.
Lancaster Dodd sacrifices his intelligence on the altar of his ego. Truman Capote risks his integrity and betrays his friends in pursuit of his literary ambitions, his motives a volatile mixture of compassion and morbid curiosity. The schoolteacher in “25th Hour” and the lonely predator in “Happiness” are both indelibly creepy. The frustrated academic of “The Savages” is merely (if also splendidly) misanthropic, and the grumpy theater artist of “Synecdoche, New York” may be merely (if also baroquely) frustrated. The priest of “Doubt” and the would-be criminal of “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” are potentially much worse.
These are not antiheroes in the cable television, charismatic bad-boy sense of the term. They are, in many cases (and there are more, going all the way back to “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and even the 1992 “Scent of a Woman”), thoroughly awful people: pathetic, repellent, undeserving of sympathy. Mr. Hoffman rescued them from contempt precisely by refusing any easy route to redemption.
He did not care if we liked any of these sad specimens. The point was to make us believe them and to recognize in them — in him — a truth about ourselves that we might otherwise have preferred to avoid. He had a rare ability to illuminate the varieties of human ugliness. No one ever did it so beautifully.