There was little comforting cinephiles the day of Philip Seymour Hoffman's untimely passing last month, though a notable exception comes to mind. Shortly after the news broke, a chorus of commenters chimed in on Lebowski Fest's Facebook page with quotations from the movie that, though still hilarious, had suddenly become resonant in entirely new ways. “Strong men also cry” was a common refrain, as was PSH's character's farewell to the Dude after their first encounter: “Well, enjoy. And perhaps we'll see you again some time, Dude.”
Watching the gone-too-soon actor's nonpareil body of work is likely to always be a similarly bittersweet experience from here on out, and the American Cinematheque has taken it upon themselves to start the commiseration process with a two-week retrospective starting today at the Aero. ]
Titled Philip Seymour Hoffman: An Actor's Actor, the series consists of just under a dozen films released between 1997 and 2012: The Master, Boogie Nights, Happiness, Punch-Drunk Love, Jack Goes Boating (which Hoffman directed), The Big Lebowski, Almost Famous, Magnolia, Synecdoche, New York, Capote and The Savages. Its name is something of a misnomer: As the outpouring of grief that followed news of his apparent overdose shows, Hoffman's work connected to just about anyone who'd been to the movies in the last fifteen years.
Eulogies and appreciations of the late, great thesp written over the last month note that he was an accomplished character actor long before his Oscar-winning turn in Bennet Miller's 2005 Truman Capote biopic made him a leading man, even if only for one film. This is unquestionably true – Happiness, The Big Lebowski, Boogie Nights, hell, even Twister all come to mind – but such a narrative runs the risk of undermining just how incredible Hoffman was as the author of In Cold Blood. After stealing scenes and subtly ingraining himself into the fabric of several acclaimed, if under-the-radar films, he'd finally announced himself to the world in commanding fashion. Capote was Hoffman's first Academy Award nomination (and only win), but three more followed in the next seven years. Once he'd established himself as one of the most magnetic on-screen presences, his status as such never slipped.
The character-actor line of thought also underscores how difficult it is not to think of every movie in which Hoffman appeared as being a distinctly PSH movie. Who could forget Brandt, the bumbling, endlessly formal assistant to the other Jeffrey Lebowski, the millionaire Jeffrey Lebowski, in The Big Lebowski? Or Phil, the kindhearted hospice nurse and moral compass of Paul Thomas Anderon's Magnolia? Remember also Lester Bangs, the Ur-journalist of rock and roll whom he brought to life with such unexpected warmth in Almost Famous. Hoffman had a habit of making films his own without chewing scenery or taking anything away from his fellow performers.
That 11 films released over a 15-year period don't even account for all of his most acclaimed roles speaks to the depth of his talents. It's no knock against this series to say that an entirely respectable parallel program consisting of just-as-acclaimed or underrated Hoffman performances would be almost as impressive: Doubt, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, Along Came Polly, Mission: Impossible III and Charlie Wilson's War. One metric of Hoffman's success is the sheer number of movies his presence made better; one that can't be measured, only imagined with a tinge of sadness, is how many he might have enriched in the future.
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