"The Master of Empathy": Appreciating the Work of Philip Seymour Hoffman | 2 or 3 Things I Know About Film >> Film Film reviews, essays, analysis and more Film | 2 or 3 Things I Know About Film >> Film Film reviews, essays, analysis and more
“The Master of Empathy”: Appreciating the Work of Philip Seymour Hoffman

To act is to inhabit the body and mind of another person, real or fictitious, to convey some of the various complicated attributes of the human condition. In this sense, acting is empathy incarnate. Over the course of a film career spanning roughly two-and-a-half decades, Philip Seymour Hoffman demonstrated consistent perfection in this field before tragically passing away at the age of 46. Had that fate not befallen him so early, he undoubtedly would have continued to give film performances that would further solidify his talent as perhaps the best his generation has to offer. Luckily, cinema is ever-existing, so we can always refer to Hoffman’s many incredible performances in the present tense.

Empathy was a strict code Hoffman applied to all of his work. “Actors are responsible to the people we play,” he once explained. “I don't label or judge. I just play them as honestly and expressively and creatively as I can, in the hope that people who ordinarily turn their heads in disgust instead think, 'What I thought I'd feel about that guy, I don't totally feel right now'."

Whether a character may be likable to the viewer––or contrarily vile––is not up to the actor portraying them. Hoffman believed this wholeheartedly (as most great actors should) and with every role he played, he centered all of his focus on discovering the humanity within the character, in all of its intricacy and messiness.

Hitting the scene in Martin Brest’s Scent of a Woman (1992) as a sly delinquent struck with nervousness when under questioning, Hoffman established that his mission to find the truth behind each person he played was never restricted by the size of the role. In Hard Eight (1996), his first of several collaborations with the great Paul Thomas Anderson, he appeared in a single scene running about three minutes in length. At first glance, his charismatic and obnoxious Young Craps Player seems to serve the purpose of scene-chewing comic relief. Hoffman brings the necessary bravado to make this impression effectively, only to ever so subtly shift his confidence to a note of shame when his presumably addicted gambler loses a bet. Still upholding a front of cockiness, his inner embarrassment is caught by Anderson’s low angle when Hoffman looks down, briefly exposing to the viewer an emotion the character is hiding from the others at the table. Despite the character’s inconsequentiality to the rest of the story, this scene is one of the most memorable of the film thanks to Hoffman’s funny and, most importantly, authentically revealing performance.

Another scene-stealing role in a P.T. Anderson film came along in Boogie Nights (1997), this time putting Hoffman on a larger display as the endearingly pathetic Scotty J. Amid a vast ensemble of talented character actors, Hoffman again stands out even when he is looming in the background. The total awkwardness in Scotty’s attempts to impress owes its often cringe-inducing nature to Hoffman’s body language and line deliveries, which work in the way of humor in some moments, only to flip toward sadness the following beat. When introduced, Scotty is quickly disregarded by the protagonist on whom he is crushing, and the camera lingers on Hoffman just a little longer than would be required if not for the sense of defeat present in his sudden stillness, unveiling a whole layer of the character without a word. When ultimately rejected later on, Scotty's self-hatred comes to the surface in Hoffman’s devastating repetition of cries: “I’m a fucking idiot. I’m a fucking idiot. I’m a fucking idiot…” Scotty is one of many cinematic “losers” to whom Hoffman would generously bestow himself in his career.


Following another comedic supporting role in Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Big Lebowski (1998), further demonstrating Hoffman’s ability to shine in a lighter genre without sacrificing his responsibility to the truth of the character, he ventured into the depths of dark comedy in Todd Solondz’s Happiness (1998). The film is intended to evoke laughter, yet nothing about the performances of its ensemble convey anything but tragedy. Hoffman’s character, Allen, could aptly be described as a slobby pervert, and the utter misery of his existence does indeed lend itself to humor––as demented as that humor may be. Hoffman, on the other hand, refuses to attach these labels to Allen, instead fearlessly imbuing the character with such honesty that one could easily find themselves suspicious of the actor’s own psychological and emotional stability. By investing Allen with this level of honesty, however, Hoffman challenges the viewer to see Allen as a deeply troubled man, rather than merely a disgusting creep. This creates even more discomfort in the viewer, as they cannot so easily judge him despite his abhorrent behavior. Thus, Hoffman’s performance effectively resonates, and the film is all the more devilishly funny and haunting as a result.

1999 was sort of a landmark year for Hoffman. P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia and Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley offered two more strong supporting performances from the man, but best of all was Hoffman’s first-ever leading film role in Joel Schumacher’s Flawless.

Playing a very flamboyant cross-dresser, he presents a remarkable sense of grandeur but again remains rooted in truth. When a male actor wears female clothing and acts "like a woman," the viewer’s reaction is traditionally one of amusement––even if unintentional. In the case of Hoffman’s character, Rusty, he is simply too believable to be gawked at, for Hoffman’s lived-in work sheds any conscious awareness of the make-pretend at hand. Even so, he does elicit some laughs through Rusty’s sarcastic quips, employing a deadpan delivery that feels completely in line with the character, when most other actors would play up the extravagance as if it were the key to femininity. Rusty describes himself as “a woman trapped in a man’s body,” and thus Hoffman only takes the approach of playing a woman––not a man’s impersonation of one. One scene has Rusty coming home from a funeral wearing a suit, his face devoid of any makeup. In basic appearance, Hoffman resembles something a lot closer to his natural self, and yet, we still only see Rusty. This is due not only to Hoffman’s perfected vocalisms and mannerisms, but to his thorough possession of the character’s personality, and every emotion that comes with it. It's because of his willingness to feel empathy for his characters that Hoffman’s performance is the only thing in the film that lives up to its title.

“You have to make your reputation on being honest, and unmerciful.” Hoffman followed these wise words spoken by his memorable supporting character in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous (2000). He embraced his gift of shining a light on “uncool” people by getting to the core of their souls and showing no mercy when those souls were uneven or damaged.



After P.T. Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love (2002) had him emanate pure rage to hilarious effect and Spike Lee’s 25th Hour (2002) had him wallow in discontent and unwanted temptation, Hoffman took on one of his most heart-wrenching roles to date in Todd Louiso’s Love Liza (2002). In his second leading role, he paints a gloomy portrait of a man named Wilson, whose grief and guilt over his wife’s suicide lead to strange sources of recreation, social awkwardness and fits of anger punctuated by explosive outbursts. One moment has Wilson laughing out loud at a joke worthy of no more than a chuckle of acknowledgment. His laughter escalates until almost everyone in his vicinity walks away in discomfort. Hoffman’s ability to exude sadness through the sound of joy is but one example of the adeptness with which he occupies the mental state of his characters. The vulnerability on display here is just as agonizing to watch when Wilson is relatively composed as it is when he melts down uncontrollably. Hoffman is willing to act in ways even he might not understand, for Wilson’s brokenness limits his understanding of himself.

Continuing his pattern of heavily flawed characters, Hoffman brilliantly depicted the obsession of a gambling addict in Richard Kwietniowski’s Owning Mahowny (2003), then basked in the comical arrogance of a somewhat repulsive yet loveable best friend in John Hamburg’s Along Came Polly (2004). By this point, he was known and respected for his show-stealing secondary roles, but he soon catapulted into leading man prestige when he gave an Oscar-winning performance as the titular Capote (2005).

Dialing the natural lows of his voice up to the high pitch of Truman’s, the mere logistics of Hoffman’s surface-level alterations would be enough to warrant praise for his effort. However, there is so much more underneath the voice and the posture which eliminate any cognizance of the actor acting, and which Hoffman uses to inform those very details as opposed to backsliding into impersonation. He explores the character’s kind nature as well as his innate selfishness and builds his history through the way he expresses himself without the film explicitly illustrating it. The performance is a tour-de-force even when Truman is just existing, absent of particular distress or urgency, but it is uniquely transcendent when those things are present. When he must say his goodbyes to Perry Smith, the man he befriended and betrayed before he is executed for his crimes, Truman breaks down in tears. “I did everything I could,” he manages to say. He tells this to the convict, but he is mostly directing it toward himself, for if he does not believe it to be true, then he would be eternally guilt-ridden by his failure. According to Bennett Miller, the film’s director, Hoffman had sworn not to cry before shooting the scene, because he believed Capote would have wanted to refrain from making it about himself. Alas, he was so in-character that the self-centredness prevailed: The guilt, the regret, and the knowledge of imminent death culminates in a release of sorrow that feels entirely genuine – because, by way of Hoffman’s empathetic technique, it very much is.


Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007) showcases one of Hoffman’s most vivid characterizations. He plays a slick businessman named Andy, whose poor decisions send him on a downward spiral until trauma ultimately vanquishes his seemingly calm demeanor. Hoffman becomes a powerhouse of despair as the film progresses. Andy’s decision to rob his own parents almost seems level-headed at first due to his persuasive rationalization, but after his mother is accidentally killed in the process, Hoffman slowly reveals the childishness behind the scheme. His entire motivation is to get revenge on his parents for not loving him the way they loved his brother growing up. After his father does try to apologize, Andy finally reaches his breaking point in a heart-stopping eruption of anger that has been pent up for decades. Hoffman sells this incredibly, then quickly digresses to stone-cold stillness, as if a fuse has been abruptly extinguished. Andy turns to hard drugs and falls deeper into a hole of depression until he is capable of murder without remorse. A character arc as wide-ranged as this one is not easy to pull off, but Hoffman does so with remarkable credibility. The actor himself had, of course, struggled through his own battle with drug addiction, so this performance can’t help but strike a deeper chord in that sense. When Andy kills an unconscious drugged-up man merely because the man reminded him of himself, the redness of Hoffman’s face and the trembling of his body betrays a pain so organic, it makes the scene distressing to watch.

Hoffman continued to turn in reliable performances, showing a softer side in Tamara Jenkins’ The Savages (2007), and a grumpier side in Mike Nichols’ Charlie Wilson’s War (2007). He journeyed into melancholy in Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (2008) and then into mystery in John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt (2008). Two of these earned him Oscar nominations, further cementing his reputation in his field. Adam Elliot’s Mary and Max (2009) features a charming Hoffman performance utilizing only his typically rugged voice, and Jack Goes Boating (2010) boasts a terrific self-directed performance as the final cinematic loser of his career, once again conveying the lovable loneliness he embodies so well. He then turned from sensitivity to gripping intimidation in his managerial roles in George Clooney’s The Ides of March (2011) and Bennett Miller’s Moneyball (2011).

His fifth and final collaboration with P.T. Anderson provided the biggest and best role the filmmaker ever wrote for him, earning the actor his last Oscar nomination. The Master (2012) pedestals Hoffman as a hypnotically quiet, caring and sophisticated cult leader named Lancaster Dodd. The performance gradually unveils Dodd’s deep-rooted confusion and animalistic instincts through sudden temper tantrums and longing glances at the childlike freedom of his cult’s newest member. Hoffman brilliantly dissects the façade of a man who acts as a “master” to those he aids, while fighting the need to be forever serving a master of his own. Like the film itself, there is much to be analyzed and interpreted in the nuances of Hoffman’s towering performance – as there is in nearly every person he ever brought to the screen.


Philip Seymour Hoffman was an acting chameleon; every character he played feels like a distinct individual from the rest. Unlike most actors rewarded the title of "chameleon," however, Hoffman did this without reliance on a physical disguise. Instead, he bravely employed the richness of his own emotions and observations gained throughout his life. That his life was cut so short is a painful loss to the film world. But his work will never die. To his appreciators of today and of the future, his unconditional empathy will remain a gift, having created a plethora of characters so fundamentally flawed, so human, that their truthfulness shall prevail through the barrier of time.

Thank you, Phil.