Cinema is arguably the most influential and powerful art form of our times. This is something that I have always maintained and I will say it again. It is actually a no-brainer, since there is no other artistic expression that manages to combine all other artistic mediums with such panache and finesse. Screenplay, music, acting and cinematography are just a handful of the many creative undertakings in a film. But, among all these, if there is one tenet of cinema that is always in the foreground, it is the acting. Yes, it is the actor who gives life to the filmmaker’s vision; the person who is the cynosure of all eyes in a cinema. The actor never reveals himself in front of the camera; it is always the character that we see. He has to strip off his personality and character, before taking on the role, both physically and emotionally. In fact, acting is probably the most challenging aspect in cinema, because of the emotional investment that goes with a character; the actor loses a part of himself with each role he plays.
Cinema has always been blessed with great actors. From James Stewart and Marlon Brando in the early days to Jack Nicholson and Daniel Day-Lewis in recent times, great actors have always thrived. But a distinctive trait common to almost all great actors is that they have all excelled in lead roles. We have always looked for heroes in our movies and almost all great actors have played into it. But what about the little man standing beside the hero? Nobody gives a damn about him and his story. He is the underdog; the sidekick who is always towered by the leading man. It is the story of these men; these men who always balk in the sidelines, that the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman managed to perfect.
When news came out on the 2nd of February 2014 that Philip Seymour Hoffman had died, the shock and outpouring of grief from the film world across the globe was phenomenal. It is a testament to the love and respect he commanded. In an industry where there is rarely any real human connection, the response to Hoffman’s death was an anomaly; people genuinely cared for this man, many of his co-actors wept on camera, as they came to terms with the loss. How could they not? At 46, Hoffman, was at the zenith of his career, giving out pitch perfect performances that very few of the contemporaries could match. But it is not just his talent alone that made Hoffman one of cinema’s most loved actors, it was the sensitivity with which he brought his characters to life. He was a man who fearlessly explored the misery of the hurt, the exiled and the misunderstood, with his trademark signature of honesty, humor and empathy. A voice for the millions of people who forever remained unrepresented in the movies, his death created a void; a void that might remain unfilled for ever.
A part-time theatre actor in his early years, Hoffman had a slow start in the movies. Right from his debut with ‘Triple Bogey on a Par Five Hole’ in 1992, he appeared in numerous small roles over the next couple of years. But, he largely remained invisible; until his association with the great indie filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson. And over the next 18 years, Hoffman’s association with Anderson would give him some his finest characters. Though they worked together in Anderson’s debut ‘Hard Eight’, it was the director’s second feature that finally launched Hoffman’s career as an actor. Chronicling the golden age of pornography, ‘Boogie Nights’ had Hoffman playing Scotty J, a professional sound mixer, secretly in love with the pornstar Dirk Diggler. Though cast in a supporting role, Hoffman commands the screen with his hopelessly vulnerable portrayal of a man tormented by his love and sexuality. With his long golden hair and plump physique, Hoffman gives emotional depth to an “unabashed loser”. In a performance that is still one of his finest, he manages to generate empathy for his character, and makes us feel for his plight.
Over the next years, Hoffman slowly established his reputation as a thinking man’s actor appearing in low budget Indie films in supporting roles. The most prominent among these were ‘The Big Lebowski’, ‘Magnolia’ and ‘Almost Famous’. All of these movies had Hoffman playing quite small roles. But the earnestness and sensitivity that he brought to his characterizations were uncanny. From a sycophantic assistant in ‘The Big Lebowski’, a male nurse in ‘Magnolia’ and a rock journalist in ‘Almost Famous’, his characters are the ones that we never usually give a second glance. But he gives these characters emotional heft, making us what to know more about them, their stories, their lives.
With time and experience, Hoffman’s critical acclaim grew exponentially, and with that came lead roles. But, even his lead roles were unlike Hollywood had ever seen before. He continued to play flawed characters; people who do not fit into the conventional template of what lead characters usually are. This was quite obvious in his portrayal of the great American author Truman Capote, in the 2005 biopic ‘Capote’. ‘Capote’ chronicles the writer’s experience of writing his most acclaimed work, the true crime novel In Cold Blood. In portraying an idiosyncratic writer obsessed with his work, ‘Capote’ won Hoffman global acclaim, sweeping all major awards including the Golden Globe, BAFTA, the SAG Award and the Academy Award.