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Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead yesterday at his home in Manhattan. Film critic Ty Burr joins Here & Now’s Robin Young to remember some of the highlights of Hoffman’s career.
Hoffman played the charismatic cult leader in “The Master,” author Truman Capote in “Capote” — which we spoke to him about in October 2005 — and most recently, head gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee in “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.”
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE MASTER")
PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN: I do many, many things. I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher, but above all I am a man, hopelessly inquisitive man, just like you.
YOUNG: Philip Seymour Hoffman in his Oscar-nominated turn as the charismatic cult leader in the 2012 film "The Master." He was found dead at 46 in his Manhattan apartment yesterday in reportedly a drug overdose. He appeared in dozens of films. He won a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Truman Capote in the 2005 film "Capote" and picked up three nominating Best Support - nominations, rather, for Best Supporting Actor for "The Master," "Doubt" and "Charlie Wilson's War."
Boston Globe film critic Ty Burr is in the studio to talk about this career ended way too suddenly and too short. And Ty, do you think he was the best American actor?
TY BURR: Oh, you know, you always get into danger when you talk about bests, even at awards time. He was certainly among the greatest actors of his generation, and I think one of the - probably the most beloved of his generation in the way that he performed on screen. He was ostensibly a character actor, he didn't have the looks for a leading man, but he played leading men.
Audiences came to him when they would see him in a movie. You would expect certain things. You would expect a depth of soul. You would expect a kind of humor that sort of realistically and cynically commented on the - just the business of being alive in the world. You expected a measure of craft that you could marvel at in the back of your head even as you're buying completely into the character as you're watching him.
He just really put things together in a way, and he also had a vulnerability, and his characters also had a resistance to vulnerability, and that conflict made him very human, really interesting, and almost like one of our peers. I'm really struck by the response in public sorrow, that people feel like they've lost a friend.
YOUNG: Well, you said that in your column today. Even though he wasn't a friend of yours, you feel like you've lost one. And looking at the list of films, we remember it goes way back: 1998, "Next Stop Wonderland," "The Big Lebowski," "Patch Adams," "Magnolia," "The Talented Mr. Ripley," so many. But let's talk about the one that was the Oscar winner, Truman Capote in the film of 2005.
He's a big man who made himself look like a 5'3" Capote. Let's listen to a little of a scene. This is at a party where the character Truman Capote is recounting a conversation he had with fellow writer James Baldwin.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CAPOTE")
HOFFMAN: (As Truman Capote) And he told me the plot of his new book, and he said to me, but I just want to make sure it's not one of those problem novels. And I said, Jimmy, your novel's about a negro homosexual who's in love with a Jew. Wouldn't you call that a problem?
YOUNG: Ty Burr, this could have gone so wrong.
BURR: Well, I mean it's a measure of the man's craft. This is one of those performances that's a great act of imposture. It re-creates somebody who was a very public figure, well-well-known. And you forget that you're watching a performance because he re-creates this figure. As you said, he seems to shrink into the role.
I mean, he was not a tiny man, and yet you completely buy into the re-creation of this character. And it's different from a lot of his other roles where he didn't really disappear behind the makeup and the re-creation of somebody well-known, but it was certainly a measure of his ability to take a character part and turn it into a lead star performance.
YOUNG: Well, we spoke with Philip Seymour Hoffman about "Capote" in 2005. Let's listen to how he described the film.
HOFFMAN: This is a story about the beginning of the end of an artist's life. You know, this is where you're really seeing someone at the pinnacle of their career, and you're also beginning to see the downfall of it in the same breath.
YOUNG: Well, and funny you should mention because he'd been very public about his - he'd been sober apparently for 23 years and been public about the fact that he'd fallen off the wagon. So you know, you can't hear him speak now without hearing echoes of his own life.
BURR: And I think those struggles manifested themselves in his roles and the way that he appeared onscreen. His characters had a sense of having been around the block, of having been through a certain amount of fire, and you sense that that came from himself as well. I think he brought an attitude toward the world into almost all his roles, and it was one with which it was possible to have great sympathy.
YOUNG: Well, and that - we asked him about that in the character of Truman Capote because we remember the book "In Cold Blood" was about a ruthless serial killer, Perry Smith. And we asked Philip Seymour Hoffman about Capote and how he could feel deep sympathy, even maybe love, maybe, for the killer, and yet at the same time exploit him ruthlessly. Here's what Philip Seymour Hoffman said.
HOFFMAN: It's true, it's - but I think both things existed in him, I think that's part of what was compelling me when I read the script, the biography. What pulled me toward it is that I saw that he was a prisoner to a lot of things. You know, he was a prisoner to how he genuinely did feel about somebody, but he was also a prisoner to how he generally saw how that person could be used to his own benefit.
He's not ultimately lying about how he feels about these things, but he does lie in order to get what he wants.
YOUNG: So really looking at a complicated character there. But I know you want to talk about another film, "Charlie Wilson's War."
BURR: Well, I think it's also worth remembering how funny Philip Seymour Hoffman could be in his smaller roles, some of his major roles. If you remember his coach in "Moneyball," that's just a wonderful deadpan comic performance. In "Charlie Wilson's War" he plays a renegade CIA agent based on a true character who comes in and just completely reorders the playing table by speaking the truth as only Hoffman could do in his roles.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR")
TOM HANKS: (As Charlie Wilson) Gust. Yeah, the Swiss make an anti-aircraft gun called the Oerlikon.
HOFFMAN: (As Gust Avrakotos) Listen, Charlie....
HANKS: (As Wilson) Twenty-millimeter cannon. I read about it.
HOFFMAN: (As Gust) I know the Orlikon. Don't forget the limo driver.
HANKS: (As Wilson) What do you mean?
HOFFMAN: (As Gust) Well, you took a limo from the casino to the airport. Maybe it's easy enough to track down a limo driver, hand him a subpoena, ask him if anything was going on in the backseat. So, you know, in terms of cleaning up this...
HANKS: (As Wilson) Were you listening at the door?
HOFFMAN: (As Gust) I wasn't listening at the door.
HANKS: (As Wilson) Were you standing at the goddamn door listening to me?
HOFFMAN: (As Gust) No.
HANKS: (As Wilson) How could you even - that's a thick door. You stood there, and you listened to me?
HOFFMAN: (As Gust) I wasn't standing at the door. Don't be an idiot. I bugged the Scotch bottle.
YOUNG: 2007's "Charlie Wilson's War" with the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. Hard to even say the late, Ty Burr. I know he just had a couple films at Sundance, where you were. Of course he's going to appear in the new "Hunger Games" film. He's been...
BURR: Two more.
YOUNG: Two more. Just your - just closing thoughts on what we've lost.
BURR: I mean I think it's going to be hard to see "The Hunger Games" movies. The second one's going to come out at the end of 2015. I mean, he's going to be with us, this sort of ghost in the machine, for a while. The two films I saw at Sundance, one is called "God's Pocket," directed by John Slattery, not a great movie, but Hoffman, who has the lead role, is very moving in it as sort of - in it as a low-level hood having a really bad week.
And then there's a John Le Carre adaptation called "The Most Wanted Man," where again he has the lead as a German spymaster. And it's almost like the ultimate Hoffman role in that he's so weary, so intelligent, so going into battle yet again. You - his intelligence brings you along with it, and you're with him every step of the way. It's a great loss, a staggering loss.
YOUNG: Filmmakers have lost a friend. Boston Globe film critic Ty Burr on the life of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Again, he died this weekend in New York, reportedly of a heroin overdose. Ty, thanks so much.
BURR: Thank you.
YOUNG: I hate that stuff. You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.