Breakouts and Outbreaks: Philip Seymour Hoffman

A masterpiece is widely regarded as the high point, or the greatest work of an individual. However, the word is derived historically from the concept of apprenticeship. In order to demonstrate that one had mastered his craft, he needed to produce a “master piece,” a piece of work that proved his excellence and solidified his future success in that field. This column will be dedicated to the performances, or overall works that have caused artists to break the surface of cinematic culture, the breakouts or “master pieces.”

Philip Seymour Hoffman has had a long illustrious career, beginning in the early nineties as a supporting actor that rarely earned notable screen time. Naturally he defies society’s expectations of a movie star; he is far from being Tom Cruise in appearance and lacks the charismatic screen presence of typical cinematic protagonists. Beneath the surface there is an undeniable talent, but Hollywood is unkind to natural character actors, pretty faces sell better.

Slowly but surely, Hoffman rose to the task. After years of working small roles such as the butler in The Big Lebowski, the gay porno worker in Boogie Nights, and sex-business boss in Punch-Drunk Love, Hoffman got the chance of a lifetime by landing the starring role in Capote. This offered him the rare opportunity to use his appearance to his advantage, as there are stunning similarities.

Even in the early days, he exhibited obvious potential (as clearly noticed by Paul Thomas Anderson who seems to have an eye for acting), but with Capote, he upped the ante in both the quality and quantity of his screen time.  Taking on a historical figure such as Truman Capote is dangerous because there is less room for interpretation. Too much deviation disrupts historical accuracy, and Capote is not a simple man to portray.

So the story goes that he won the Oscar that year, and while some would argue in favor of Joaquin Phoenix, the choice was made with sound judgment. Hoffman practiced method acting in this role, the rare feat of fully embodying the character. For those who are unfamiliar, method acting is when an actor attempts to become the character on and off set, live their life, and learn what it’s like to walk in their shoes. Method acting was used by Marlon Brando for his work with director Elia Kazan and Robert DeNiro in Raging Bull, practicing it is quite prestigious. In Hoffman’s case, he allegedly ate Capote’s favorite ice cream (among other things) for a full month straight. His full submersion includes a high pitched and totally unnatural (but thoroughly convincing) voice and plenty of quirks and mannerisms.

Look no further than the opening scene on the train to witness his precision. In this sequence Capote’s close friend, Harper Lee, played beautifully by Catherine Keener, is interrupted by a porter to shower Capote with praise. As soon as he leaves, Lee remarks to Capote, “You paid him to say that.” He quickly responds, “How did you know?” Watching this individual scene in repeat viewings allows one to notice the different ways in which an individual acts with different people. Hoffman creates two distinct Capotes in this scene:  The one who deals with the porter, and the one who deals with his friend. He switches over from relative seriousness and a little discomfort) to his casual flamboyance instantaneously and sets the tone for the entire film in one brief scene.

Capote is clearly Philip Seymour Hoffman’s breakthrough performance. In one sweeping motion he went from background actor to considerable star. Quickly afterwards, he appeared as the villain in the third installment of Mission Impossible, and earned a second Oscar nomination in Mike Nichols’s Charlie Wilson’s War and a third in John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt. He returned to quiet delicacy with The Savages, an unjustly underviewed film, and then gave, what I consider to be his greatest performance in Synecdoche, New York. Well, I guess it’s a tie; I have a soft spot for his bit-part in Almost Famous as well.

In the future, I hope to see Hoffman continue with the roll he is currently on. Roger Ebert commented in his review of Hot Tub Time Machine that John Cusack has hardly ever been in a bad film, right now, I could say the same for Philip Seymour Hoffman.  Capote brought him front and center and showed the world that he had mastered his craft. I just await the day that Paul Thomas Anderson hands him a lead.

This is the first of a new column about breakout performances, please comment away. Any performances or works you’d like to see?

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  • I loved the writing and i loved the fact that it was dedicated to my favorite actor, PSH. That guy can act like nobody and he knows how to choose his projects. I haven’t seen Capote yet, but i’ve loved him in Doubt, Before The Devil…, Magnolia, The Big Lebowski and, yes, the brilliant Synecdoche, New York. I’m happy he’s got the recognition he deserves.

    I’d love to see Penélope Cruz or Javier Bardem in here.

  • BTW, his name is spelled “Philip” not “Phillip”, that’s a common mistake.

  • I was really glad that ‘Capote’ rescued him from his seemingly inevitable path of supporting roles in PTA and Coen Bros. movies. He’s one of those rare actors who has never given a bad performance and I’m in complete agreement that his best performance came from ‘Synecdoche, New York.’

  • Davin

    Wow thats embarrassing, I double-checked everything I wrote in here, didn’t occur to me I’d mess that up. Ah well, Javier Bardem is a good call, keep in mind I’m not just looking for actors.

  • Jose

    An excellent piece about one of my favorite actors.

  • Peter Sarsgaard in Shattered Glass, please. One of my favourite performances and the one that made me first notice and admire Sarsgaard.

  • Quinn

    Hoffman’s performance in “Synecdoche, New York” was excellent. The movie … not so much.

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