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Philip Seymour Hoffman
Franco Origlia  /  Getty Images
Even in front of Rome's famous Colosseum, Philip Seymour Hoffman looks more like a tourist than an Academy Award-winning actor.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 5/4/2006 5:40:20 PM ET 2006-05-04T21:40:20
COMMENTARY

Philip Seymour Hoffman has finally made it.

Yeah yeah, the Academy Award for best actor. Whatever. I’m talking about his new supervillain status in “Mission: Impossible III.” Starting out, Hoffman was never the villain but the friend of the villain. In his first (small) screen role, in a 1990 episode of “Law & Order,” he wasn’t the rapist but the guy who held down the girl for the rapist. In “My Boyfriend’s Back” he wasn’t the villainous BMOC but the villainous BMOC’s toady, all sneer and backwards baseball cap and catch phrase: “What’re you lookin’ at, dirtbag?”

There’s a great rivalry between two of the three criminals who pull the dog-track heist in the 1993 remake of “The Getaway”; Hoffman’s the third guy, the one who doesn’t get away. And when John Cusack’s Philly dockworker finds $1.2 million in “Money for Nothing,” Hoffman’s not the local tough who offers to launder it for him; he’s the unemployed dockworker who tries to blackmail him but self-loathingly settles for a free drink instead.

Now look at him. A global arms dealer playing deadly games with IMF agent Ethan Hunt. “I’m gonna find her, I’m gonna hurt her, and then I’m going to kill you in front of her” is a far cry from “What’re you lookin’ at, dirtbag?”

The guy who played that in that
Of course if I had to peg Hoffman as a supervillain I’d probably go with Spider-Man’s nemesis, the Chameleon, the man who keeps changing identities. How many times over the last 10 years has Hoffman inspired the following conversation among moviegoers: You mean that’s the guy who played that in that? And now he’s playing this guy? You’re kidding. That’s unbelievable.

You’re kidding. That’s the guy who played the smitten homosexual in “Boogie Nights”? And now he’s this rich jerk in “The Talented Mr. Ripley”?

You’re kidding. That’s who played the partying member of the storm-chasing team in “Twister”? And now he’s this genial writer in “State and Main”?

You could go on forever. The guy playing Truman Capote is the spoiled former child star from “Along Came Polly” is the defrocked Reverend from “Cold Mountain” is the gambler from “Owning Mahoney” is the pimp from “Punch Drunk Love” is the drag queen from “Flawless” is the blue-blood roommate from “Patch Adams” is the obsequious manservant from “The Big Lebowski” is the hapless obscene phone caller from “Happiness” is the put-upon policeman from “Nobody’s Fool,” and all of them are the snotty rich kid from “Scent of a Woman.”

Spider-Man wouldn’t know which way to turn.

Small, exquisite choices
Mine, by the way, is the first of the above responses (smitten homosexual/rich jerk). Knowing and loving him as Scotty J. (for years I assumed Hoffman was gay because of the role), I was stunned when he stepped off his car with all the insouciance of his class in “Ripley.” Scotty is small, passive and full of self-loathing (and we love him for it) while Freddie Miles is big, aggressive and full of self-confidence (and we hate him for it). Both are played perfectly. Both hit bone.

Scotty has that embarrassing scene where he makes a clumsy pass at Dirk Diggler and then sits in his car saying, “I’m a f---ing idiot” over and over again. Freddie has that confrontational scene where, looking for Dickie Greenleaf, he finds Ripley, and confronts him, and treats the furniture like it’s his (jacket tossed onto the piano), and sees through everything — not least, Ripley’s bourgeois taste — and when he finally gets whacked in the head, he rears up and makes a noise like an angry bull, because Ripley is this sad nothing, and how can this sad nothing stop him? End him? Can you imagine poor Freddie’s mind at that moment? In the movie of his life, with Freddie as the star and Dickie as one of the supporting players, Tom Ripley was, at best, an annoying extra. He shouldn’t even have had a line. And to have this extra suddenly be the cause of the end of his movie? It didn’t make sense. No wonder he reared up like an angry bull.

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Hoffman makes these small, exquisite choices all the time. The look of horror on Scotty J.’s face as a coked-up Dirk Diggler loses it and tells off the crew. The get-along chuckle of Brandt, the manservant in “The Big Lebowski,” and the respectful way he acquiesces to everyone’s wishes, even the Dude’s, even to the point of calling him “Dude” in a respectful, manservant tone of voice. The pause he gives tabloid reporter Freddy Lounds talking to the FBI in “Red Dragon”: “It’s a pleasure doing business with you...chumps.” What’s sadder? That “chumps” is the bon mot he pauses for, or that he doesn’t realize it’s not much of a bon mot? We watch Hoffman act the way we read the best sentences of the best writers. There’s art in it. It’s worthwhile on its own.

Least supporting actor
So what’s surprising isn’t that Hoffman won the Academy Award for best actor for “Capote,” it’s that “Capote” was his first nomination. All those great supporting performances in the last 10 years and nary a nod. In his more acclaimed films, other, better-looking actors got the noms: Burt Reynolds and Julianne Moore for “Boogie Nights,” Tom Cruise for “Magnolia,” Jude Law for “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” Kate Hudson and Frances McDormand for “Almost Famous” and Jude Law and Rene Zellwegger for “Cold Mountain.” Until last March, Hoffman stayed home Oscar night.

This exclusion actually makes an odd kind of sense. Hoffman is so interesting he sometimes turns our interest away from the lead, and that makes him the least supporting actor. After Lester Bangs shows up in “Almost Famous,” railing against the people who are destroying rock ‘n roll, and needing this kid almost as much as the kid needs him, who wants to follow that idiot rock band? Let’s get back to Bangs! Do we really care about the romance between Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt at the center of the “Twister” storm? No. But we love this big friendly scientist who’s ready to embrace life in his big friendly arms. 

Remember “Patch Adams”? Great box office, horrible film. Title character wants doctors to care. Nasty dean of med school doesn’t. Hence: conflict. Patch even has the typical, snobby, blue-blood roommate we’re supposed to hate. Except there’s a late-night confrontation between the roomies and the film is upended:

Patch (Robin Williams): Why don't you like me? You're a prick and I like you.
Mitch (Hoffman): Because you make my effort a joke! I want to be a doctor. This isn't a game to me! This isn't playtime! This is serious business. I have it in me to be a great doctor, but in order to do that I have to sacrifice if I want to be better.
Patch: "Better." Better than me, hmm?
Mitch: I will save lives that could have otherwise not been saved. Now, I could be like you and go around laughing and have a good time, ha ha, but I prefer to learn, because the more I learn, the more likely I will have the right answer at the crucial moment and save a life.

The filmmakers give Patch the final word, but if you’re a thinking person you realize Mitch is right. More, you identify with Mitch. Most of us try so hard in life and yet there’s always some idiot who hardly tries at all and still passes us up. Mitch could have been a clichéd, reviled character but Hoffman gave him humanity. We begin to love Mitch and begin to dislike (if we didn’t already loathe) the title character. It’s a great moment, but hardly “supporting.”

How flawed we are
The fact that we identify with Mitch rather than Patch recalls something Hoffman told David Edelstein in a recent New York Timesprofile. Illuminating his struggle to keep Truman Capote less attractive in “Capote,” Hoffman said, “The way toward empathy is actually to be as hard as possible on this character. The harder you are, the more empathy you'll gain, ultimately, by the end.” When Edelstein questioned him on this — less attractive equals more empathy? — Hoffman added, “I think deep down inside, people understand how flawed they are. I think the more benign you make somebody, the less truthful it is.”

“Patch Adams” is as benign as meringue but Mitch is a hard nugget of reality within it. The “Almost Famous” rock band, Stillwater, is a sugar-coated version of Led Zeppelin but Lester Bangs delivers the truth. I never understood people who applauded Harper Lee for condemning Truman at the end of “Capote.” Capote says he couldn’t have done anything to save Perry Smith and Richard Hickock from execution, and she responds, “Maybe not, Truman. But the truth is you didn’t want to.” Ah, but the truth is he did want to. That’s the tragedy. Once he got going he was going to betray someone — Alvin Dewey, the people of Holcomb, those who demand an eye for an eye — and in the end he chose to betray the murderers, including Perry, whom he loved. It saved his non-fiction novel, “In Cold Blood,” but it destroyed the writer in him. That’s the tragedy. In the movie Harper Lee knows no tragedy and comes off as a prig. She casts stones because her character is without sin. Who can identify with that?

Of course most people go to the movies for transference, not identification. They want to pretend to be what they’re not (John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe, etc.), while Hoffman keeps giving us what we are: the gambler who can’t stop gambling; the lonely, paunchy man in boxers making obscene phone calls in an age of *69; the man sniffing gasoline to forget his wife’s suicide.

But some of us, every once in a while, go to the movies for identification rather than transference, for truth rather than wish-fulfillment, and when we do Hoffman is there for us, our sad, rumpled stand-in, reminding us that we’re not alone. The “I’m a f---ing idiot” scene is painful to watch because we’ve all been there, and it’s glorious to watch because we’ve all been there, and if there is beauty in truth then Scotty J. is beautiful, and so is Mitch Roman and Rusty Zimmerman and Phil Parma and Freddie Miles and Lester Bangs and Freddy Lounds and Jacob Elinsky and Truman Capote. And maybe, just maybe, we are, too.

Erik Lundegaard has 14 percent recall of all conversation. He can be reached at: elundegaard@mn.rr.com

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