It’s a Hollywood cliché, which, like many Hollywood clichés, has at least a grain of truth to it: The young ingénue gets cast in a small role, and as the opening-night patrons leave, at least one of them turns to his companion and says, “Yeah, the star was all right, I guess, but who was that girl who played the maid?”
In Hollywood movies, Philip Seymour Hoffman is the maid, taking supporting parts — turns out there really aren’t small roles after all — and handily stealing focus away from whatever big stars to whom the movie ostensibly belongs.
Who was the one character in “The Talented Mr. Ripley” who felt like an actual threat to Matt Damon’s schemer? Hoffman. Who gave audiences a respite from Robert De Niro’s catalog of stroke-recovery tics in the awful “Flawless”? Hoffman. Which cast member did you most hope would clobber the up-with-people shtick out of Robin Williams in “Patch Adams”? Hoffman.
But even in indie movies, where Hoffman gets top billing, he’s still the maid. Which is to say he’s still a character actor, bereft of leading-man smoothness and that phony “I love the camera, and the camera loves me, and aren’t you a lucky audience to get to watch us make out” movie-star charisma. Whether it’s his nervous, self-destructive energy as a compulsive gambler in “Owning Mahowny” or his catastrophic breakdown at the climax of “Capote,” Hoffman takes us to the uncomfortable, unattractive corners of the human psyche that many actors would just as soon spare us — or themselves.
This year appears to be another in a series of banner years for Hoffman, which is all the more extraordinary due to his universal acclaim in 2005 for “Capote.” Apparently missing the memo that most Oscar-winners get — “Item One: Sign up for several crappy movies with big paychecks attached, then star in a Sundance movie as atonement” — Hoffman has continued to make the kind of idiosyncratic choices he made pre-statuette.
It’s one thing for an up-and-comer to establish his reputation by playing pathetic, sexually repressed sad sacks in movies like “Boogie Nights” and “Happiness,” but “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” and “The Savages” involve the kind of complicated, non-huggable characters from which actors of Hoffman’s stature begin backing away at this point in their careers.
One year, three incredible performances“Devil” stars Hoffman as Andy, who can best be described as “a piece of work.” Andy’s embezzling money from work and trying desperately to keep his wife’s interest, all while maintaining a pricey heroin habit. Is it any wonder he decides to mastermind a jewelry store holdup? Nevermind the fact that said store belongs to his parents. It’s the family dynamics that provide ample opportunities for Hoffman’s chameleonic nature — he can turn on a dime from being the oppressive, taunting big brother of Ethan Hawke’s pathetic Hank to the cowed, embittered son of big papa Albert Finney.
Hoffman’s got daddy issues in “Savages,” as well, although they exist mostly as subtext. We don’t see first-hand how Philip Bosco treated Hoffman and Laura Linney (as his sister), but there’s a palpable lack of residual warmth now that the kids have to deal with dad’s dementia and with placing him in a care facility. (“We’re taking better care of the old man than he ever did of us,” Hoffman mutters darkly at one point.)
One always hears off-the-record horror stories from screenwriters about big-name actors who sign on for a project, only to ask for a rewrite to make the character “stronger” or “more likable” or “more sympathetic,” but one can only imagine Hoffman, were he to suggest changes at all, requesting the opposite.
Hoffman’s other big role this year is in the upcoming “Charlie Wilson’s War,” and on paper it looks like the sort of safe bet you’d imagine an Academy-anointed actor taking — a supporting role opposite Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts in a Mike Nichols movie. But again, while Hanks and Roberts do their movie-star thing — in a film in which both of them, alas, are grossly miscast — Hoffman quietly, assuredly, gives the film its only moments of truth and resonance, even making America’s Sweethearts look better in his scenes with them.
He performed the same mojo on Tom Cruise in their two films together, “Magnolia” and “Mission: Impossible III.” Hoffman is such a slick, terrifying villain in the latter, it’s hard for audiences to buy the fact that Cruise’s four-square boy scout comes out on top in their confrontation. But as the kids on the internet say, IITS. (“It’s in the script.”)
Hoffman’s script choices continue to be unpredictable and engaging. Next year promises more exceptional choices, with the screen version of the Pulitzer-winning play “Doubt” and Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut “Synecdoche, New York” on tap. And beyond that, he’s building a career that offers him no end of choices.
Having eschewed the notion of being a sex symbol — although there are fans out there who find him both ravishing and ravish-able — there’s no shelf life for his unique looks. And with his solid background as an actor and director onstage, he can always turn his back on the cinema if the interesting opportunities should stop coming his way.
But that would be a tragedy for American movies. It’s so hard to find a good maid these days.
Duralde is the author of “101 Must-See Movies for Gay Men”; find him at