Film acting may be the most mysterious of the arts. A film script is shorter than a stage play, but it leaves more for the actor to sketch in, because devices like stage direction and soliloquy are largely unavailable. Every choice therefore bears added weight. At the same time, the large screen, which records every facial twitch for posterity, compels an economy of gesture. What the actor must do, at a minimum—and this is merely where the mystery begins—is “get through the screen.” Beauty and talent aside, some actors can hold our attention. Those who cannot pass this first decisive test don’t get cast.
Even the most resourceful critics struggle to say why one performance leaves a lasting impression while another fades. It’s not that there aren’t enough English adjectives, but rather that adjectives often seem like the wrong tools. Imagine describing to a friend the pathos Marlon Brando evokes as a washed-up boxer in On the Waterfront, or what Paul Newman does with his alcoholic lawyer in The Verdict. No words quite substitute for the experience of watching a great actor in full flight.
Eight and a half years have passed since the February 2014 death of Philip Seymour Hoffman of a heroin overdose at age 46. Hoffman’s absence still provokes sadness. He was not quite a movie star; he was something much better. Only in retrospect has the scale of his ambition become clear. One role at a time, he was trying to take on the whole of our collective experience, to get inside the loneliness, the self-loathing, and the desperation—above all, the desperation—of life in a nation poking at its own psychic wounds.
Hoffman’s most durable role was probably in Capote, for which he won an Academy Award in 2005. He portrayed writer Truman Capote during a pivotal period in Capote’s career—as he researched and composed his greatest book, the true-crime story In Cold Blood. The book both made Capote’s reputation and drained him emotionally, beginning the moral and physical collapse that ended in his premature death. Totally lacking in physical vanity, Hoffman made himself smaller, raised his voice several octaves, mastered Capote’s distinctive gestures. It was a triumph not merely of technique but of understanding. Hoffman played Capote as a man both exquisitely self-possessed and entirely captive to his own ambition. Hoffman could underline Capote’s self-deceptions in his pursuit of the truth about the murders of the Clutter family because he understood the artistic stakes the writer was playing for.
Contrast Capote with Hoffman’s performance in Sidney Lumet’s 2007 crime thriller Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead. As he is delicate in Capote, here he is bullying and brutal. His Andy, an inept criminal and a worse son and brother, is hateful and cruelly manipulative. He brings ruin and death to the people around him. But Hoffman connects us to Andy’s need, just as he connected us to Capote’s, and when Andy breaks open in a pivotal scene, we see the unloved little boy he once was. As his plan unravels, Andy commits terrible violence, but he never quite loses our sympathy.