In praise of leading men who cut a different profile.
Pudgy, pasty, and freckled, Philip Seymour Hoffman is a far cry from Hollywood’s ideal of a dramatic leading man. That’s why those of us who deplore the way the film industry upholds artificial standards of attractiveness feel a little thrill with every one of his acting triumphs. Amid the beautiful people who rule the silver screen, he’s a wonderful anomaly. On the Hollywood Olympus, with its pantheon of perfect cinema gods, Hoffman is our Hephaestus, the homely master craftsman.
True, despite his gifts, the 45-year-old actor doesn’t often get to play the lead; when working with conventionally handsome box-office bait like Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise, he has to settle for co-star status. But when he’s allowed to be front-and-centre—as he is in The Master, the stunning new Paul Thomas Anderson film that screened at TIFF and opens this Friday—he proves again that sheer talent trumps traditional good looks any day.
This isn’t to say that actors of Hoffman’s physical type can’t be stars. There have been plenty of them, but they’re almost always comedians. The funny fat guy has been a cinema staple from Oliver Hardy to Jonah Hill. But if you’re a dramatic actor packing extra pounds, you pretty much have to resign yourself to secondary character roles. (The same is true for actresses—Kathy Bates being one of the few to shatter that thespian glass ceiling.) Hoffman, however, is so good he simply can’t be confined to second-banana status. He proved that in 2006, when he walked off with the best actor Oscar for his tour de force performance in Capote. Now he seems likely to be up for the trophy again with The Master, in which he plays a 1950s cult leader modelled on Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.
Hoffman owes some of his success to brilliant writer-director Anderson, who recognized the actor’s virtuosity early on and gave him some of his first substantial parts, in Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and as Adam Sandler’s antagonist in Punch-Drunk Love. After Capote (directed by his long-time friend Bennett Miller), Hoffman moved to the front ranks. Since then, he’s entered a pattern, playing the lead in indie and art-house films (The Savages; Synecdoche, New York) and on Broadway (Death of a Salesman), while taking prominent co-starring roles in mainstream flicks like The Ides of March and Moneyball. Even when he doesn’t have top billing, he more than holds his own against the A-listers. He handily stole Tom Hanks’s thunder as the frumpy, po-faced CIA operative in Charlie Wilson’s War and, in contrast, made Meryl Streep’s acting look excessive next to his subtle portrayal of the kindly priest in Doubt.
In the past, a few other dramatic character actors have achieved Hoffman’s star status. Rod Steiger moved to the top of the marquee in the 1960s with films like The Pawnbroker and In the Heat of the Night. Gene Hackman did the same in the 1970s with The French Connection and The Conversation. And then there’s Humphrey Bogart, the icon among unlikely movie stars. His hangdog features and sinister lisp condemned him to supporting parts in gangster pictures throughout the 1930s, until The Maltese Falcon in 1941 transformed him into the quintessential cynical hero.
Bogart was up against such specimens of male beauty as Clark Gable and Gary Cooper. Today, Hollywood is awash in gorgeous leading men, from seasoned hunks like Clooney and Pitt to new Adonises like Gosling and Pattinson. Don’t get me wrong: One of the pleasures of movie-going is to gaze at beautiful people in larger-than-life dimensions. And big-budget films that need to reach the widest audiences possible are going to favour actors who conform to western physical ideals.
But the screen isn’t just a portal of escape, it’s also a mirror. There is a deeper experience in seeing reality reflected back. And Hoffman hasn’t been shy about it—he’s been unstinting in letting us see his flawed flesh. He uses his imperfect body cannily, to let us connect with him. It’s just part of his formidable actor’s arsenal. He’s riveting to watch, whether he’s being foul-mouthed and abrasive or witty and effete, intellectually seductive or painfully vulnerable. Who cares if he lacks a chiseled jaw and washboard abs? You go to a Philip Seymour Hoffman film to revel, not in beauty, but in humanity.