Lately, I noticed my mind repeatedly going back to the awful Hunger Games prequel movie, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. It was like a toe purposely seeking out a painful pebble in a shoe. The film was truly forgettable and left me wondering if there was anything that could have saved it.
Upon reflection, I noticed a significant absence compared to its predecessors: Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose tragic passing at the young age of 46 still deeply affects me. He portrayed the unsettling head gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee. While it may not have been his most remarkable performance, it was evident that it was simply a job for him. However, his presence elevated The Hunger Games to a higher level.
Hoffman has gained a lot of attention on social media leading up to the 10th anniversary of his passing. His presence as an actor is unforgettable, as he was known for being intelligent, humorous, and unique. Sadly, he was taken away too soon when he was at the peak of his career. Many individuals have been sharing their favorite pictures of him online, often showcasing him in smaller or unconventional roles. Personally, I would choose to share an image of him in the film Moneyball, where he portrays Art Howe, the manager of the Oakland Athletics. In the movie, Howe is part of the older generation that is replaced by Brad Pitt’s character, Billy Beane, and his modern statistical methods.
Hoffman slumped and stalked about in a shirt that boldly highlighted his expanding belly: he exuded dissatisfaction and animosity – the minor part displayed the typical Hoffman energy, that air of doubt and disdain.
Hoffman’s performance in the film was exceptional, but he never ventured into other roles. Perhaps he would have excelled as Beane if he had played him with the same rebellious energy he brought to his portrayal of music journalist Lester Bangs in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous in 2000.
Seymour gave an outstanding performance in two films, The Master (2012) directed by Paul Thomas Anderson and Capote (2005) directed by Bennett Miller, where he played the roles of a cult leader and author Truman Capote, respectively. He received an Oscar for his role in Capote, where he portrayed the author as a small and lively figure. His portrayal of the arrogant Freddie Miles in The Talented Mr Ripley (1999) directed by Anthony Minghella was terrifying, as was his character in Todd Solondz’s Happiness (1998) who was addicted to making abusive phone calls. His greatest achievement may be in Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (2008), where he played a depressed playwright whose play becomes its own reality.
Other performances come back into my mind: the grumpy brother opposite Laura Linney in The Savages in 2007 (a great pairing, actually), the siblings having to come together in middle age to deal with their elderly father. Or how about Love Liza from 2002, with Hoffman playing a man suffering a breakdown after the death of his wife – the script was written by the actor’s brother, Gordy Hoffman. The often wordless agony he showed in this intensely personal film feels very real.
This is just a fraction of Hoffman’s screen career and doesn’t touch on his stage work. But why is the thought of Hoffman so potent now? I think it’s because of a yearning to dispense with franchise dullness and return the movies, especially US films, to a tough, analogue reality, with human scripts and human characterisation. And Hoffman was the standard-bearer for these values without wanting to be, or seeing his career in those terms.
Consider the films nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. In Killers of the Flower Moon, I admire Robert De Niro’s portrayal of the malevolent landowner, but I can also envision Philip Seymour Hoffman in the same role. In Poor Things, I appreciate Willem Dafoe’s character as a doctor and Mark Ruffalo’s character as a suave gentleman. However, I can also imagine Hoffman taking on either of these roles. He would have been well-suited to play Leonard Bernstein. Even in smaller roles like Lewis Strauss in Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, I can envision Hoffman delivering a stellar performance. His presence is ever-present in my mind as a hypothetical, yet influential figure in many of this year’s acclaimed films. He was a truly talented and inspirational performer.