This weekend, we learned the sad news of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death. I’ll leave the platitudes and edgy jokes to others; instead, let’s celebrate the life and work of an actor intimately associated with the literary world. Some of Hoffman’s finest performances were in films adapted from or inspired by novels, plays and nonfiction works, and he was also a dedicated theater actor. Thus, much of his professional life was defined by a measured interlocution between the printed word and us, the audience. Here are a few of the books, plays and other literary works that sparked some of Hoffman’s best roles:
1. The Big Lebowski — Inspired by the Work of Raymond Chandler
A recurring theme in Hoffman’s work was his skill in bringing life and nuance to small roles, to characters who often possessed little status or cachet in their own fictional worlds. In The Big Lebowski, Hoffman played a wonderfully breathless Brandt, the millionaire Lebowski’s personal secretary. The film is the Coen brothers’ ode to pulp noir, explicitly inspired by Chandler. Hoffman’s character is a classic archetype in the writer’s world: the gatekeeper who tries to push the protagonist away from the truth, often while revealing more than he wants to.
2. The Talented Mr. Ripley — Based on the Novel by Patricia Highsmith
Hoffman here plays Freddie Miles, an uncomfortably perceptive friend of Tom Ripley’s first victim, Dickie Greenleaf. The scenes between Hoffman and Matt Damon’s Ripley are difficult to watch: Miles gives Ripley such a hard time and has so instantaneously (and correctly) judged Ripley as a fraud and social climber that you actually begin to feel sorry for Ripley ... right up until he murders Miles to keep his secret. In the straightforward prose of Highsmith’s 1955 novel, Miles is a ginger-haired, wobbly boor, yet Hoffman brought a piercingly human touch to the somewhat cartoonish literary figure.
3. Almost Famous — Based on Cameron Crowe’s Experience as a Music Journalist
Almost Famous is based on the early life of its director, Crowe, who skipped three grades and became socially isolated at high school as a result. He began writing music features for his school newspaper before being taken on by Lester Bangs and Rolling Stone just shy of his 16th birthday. Hoffman played Bangs in the film, bringing a likeable self-aware pomposity to a guy who, by some accounts, was a bit of an asshole. Like Hoffman, Bangs died too young, and it’s heartbreaking now to watch Hoffman as Bangs dispensing advice to his young protégé. His words could serve as a manifesto for the actor’s life:
You have to be honest and unmerciful. If you get into a jam, call me. I stay up late.
4. Red Dragon — Based on the Novel by Thomas Harris
Harris’ series of chillers featuring Hannibal Lecter may reside in that most maligned literary ghetto of genre fiction, but there’s no denying the compelling viciousness and gruesome detail of Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs. In the film adaptation of Red Dragon, Hoffman played Freddy Lounds, a sleazy reporter willing to steal evidence, photograph victims in the hospital and misquote police officers to get a good story. Hoffman’s version of Lounds is unpleasant, but complex: Even as he pleads with serial killer Francis Dolarhyde for his life, you wonder if he’s still thinking about the exclusive coming his way.
5. Cold Mountain – Based on the Novel by Charles Frazier
Inspired by Homer’s Odyssey, Cold Mountain is the story of Inman (played by Jude Law), a Confederate deserter making his way back to his wife. Hoffman’s turn as Veasey, a preacher who accompanies Inman on his journey, is masterful. Veasey’s morals are as wavering as Law’s Southern accent, but Hoffman brought a debonair rakishness to the part. Both film and novel versions of Veasey are self-effacingly roguish, honest and not particularly penitent about his appetites and predilections. When we first meet him, Veasey is trying to kill his black lover, but somehow Hoffman weaves him into a likeable, funny character.
6. Capote — Based on the Life of Truman Capote
Capote’s In Cold Blood invented the modern true crime exposé — a dubious accolade, perhaps, but if you haven’t read it, do so. It’s one of the saddest, most brutal works I’ve come across, indispensable for the impeccable rigor and forensic detail of Capote’s unfussy writing. For the fascinating biopic, Hoffman — the typically unshowy supporting actor — somehow became the waspish Capote. The book doesn’t shrink from the callous violence of the crime Capote covers, and Hoffman didn’t shrink from tackling the murky interface between the author’s self-regard, his odd friendship with murderer Perry Smith and his all-consuming ambition.
One strand is writ large through the work Hoffman left behind: The ability he had to take one-dimensional, unappealing or incidental characters and imbue them with something unforgettable. Even this limited sampling of his films illustrates the depth of his range and skill, and hopefully this legacy won’t be overshadowed by his tragic death. His passing has truly saddened fans — which is a mark of his abilities as an actor, that people should feel such a connection to him based only on the roles he played.