Philip Seymour Hoffman was great on the telephone. If you start to think about it, it’s going to be hard to stop. He’s unbelievably, pitifully terrifying foisting phone sex on Jane Adams inHappiness; exploding with frustrated, syncopated rage at Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love; being coolly, almost elegantly threatening in Mission Impossible III; quietly preaching the gospel of Lester Bangs in Almost Famous. And in Magnolia, his Phil Parma picks up a preposterously large cellular phone to find his dying patient’s estranged son and realizes that his job, the work that he does for a living, is, to some extent or another, the work of compassion. This was Philip Seymour Hoffman’s work, too. And he did it better than any one else of his generation.
To some extent, it’s coincidental that so many of these scenes take place on the phone. It doesn’t necessarily imply that Hoffman was known amongst those in the know as The Greatest Telephonic Actor in the Business. Nor should we necessarily focus on the actor’s voice to the exclusion of his unruly body and the ease with which he imbues it with menace, hilarity, even both. But it’s also not wrong to think back on these scenes and to wonder what they reveal of this man’s art, why these moments in particular can represent his work so fully even in their constraint. As we are beginning to reckon with the distance we now feel from an actor who had seemed so intimately communicative with us as viewers of film, we should ask why he was so reliably able to reach us when he was alive.
There was always a crack to his voice, a vulnerable beat in any speech that he could use as a pivot to greater wells of despair or a more strident confidence. To say that a voice breaks is to imply that that voice is weak or unstable. But weakness and instability were where Philip Seymour Hoffman began. In Boogie Nights or The Big Lebowski, among those early stolen scenes, Hoffman built minor tragic heroes in the break between weakness and strength. They were acts of creative destruction, characters razed to the ground, performing the thin artifice of their personalities, but fostering a potential energy far more powerful than their outward appearances. Hoffman gave rich and full life to men who did not necessarily believe they had rich or full lives themselves. He lent unmistakable gravitas to the groveling.
And at the same time, that voice could be turned up, made clear and confident and sustained—unbroken. In films like Charlie Wilson’s War, Almost Famous, and in the spectacular genre work of Mission Impossible: III, he could transform a physicality that the world has chosen to call “schlubby” into pure muscle. These were characters so solid they seemed like they grew out of the ground. But in the epic scams of The Master, the delusional hypocrisies of Doubt, even the cocktail party arrogance of Capote, Hoffman could use that rare depth of tone to expose a fundamental shallowness. He could play characters, in other words, as ruined inside as Scottie J in Boogie Nights, with personalities just as performed, but blown up to the size and scale of a revival tent. There’s a scene in The Master in which the son of Hoffman’s charismatic egomaniac tells Joaquin Phoenix’s ensorcelled convert, “He’s making all of this up as he goes along. You don’t see that?” This statement is true of so many great Hoffman characters. The difference is in whether those around him—the other characters or even we as an audience—can see the performance for what it is. This is the kind of modulation that made, that makes, him so gut-wrenching and delightful to watch. His characters lie, but he tells us the truth.
Talking about this earlier, my friend Evan Kindley said that what’s so seemingly difficult about the phone scene as a genre of performance is that it’s both a monologue and a dialogue at the same time. What comes across to us as a conversation mediated by the telephone might, practically, be performed as a long, stutter-stopped soliloquy. To pull it off, the actor mustn’t just say the lines, he or she has to imply the presence of another person, to credibly perform and even ventriloquize that connection. It’s one of those classic invisible skills of the film actor—the ultimate goal is for the audience to not notice how impressive it is. And it’s a testament to how good he was at it that it’s only now in that familiar funereal searching of YouTube that it strikes me how often these scenes came to define Philip Seymour Hoffman in my mind.
But focusing on these phone scenes might tempt us to draw attention away from the rest of what he could do—dancing with stubbed grace in Freddie Quell’s hallucination, hanging from a doorway in The Savages, bursting out of his skin in Boogie Nights. There’s his gift for the reaction shot; the constipated silence of his work in Moneyball or The 25th Hour (his double dolly shot in that film is one of Lee’s best in part because Hoffman knows exactly how to look at his audience); his willingness to become physically ugly; his facility with explosive anger; and the modesty with which he “disappears” into his characters—his performances never repeat themselves but we never talk about Hoffman’s “method” the way we do Daniel Day-Lewis’. What’s remarkable about these phone scenes, though, is how much of all of this is visible in them. These moments are not just about voice. They’re about the way all of this charm and vulnerability and physicality and presence and labor and intelligence could be marshaled by this actor and directed at a prop. It’s a wonder those phones didn’t melt.
Teaching film studies, a lot of students ask who my favorite actor is. When prompted, I give the answer I’ve been giving since I saw Magnolia in 1999: Philip Seymour Hoffman. Sometimes I tell them my favorite film is Jaws, sometimes I say The Passion of Joan of Arc, sometimes I say Ghostbusters. But I never change my favorite actor, and I probably never will. Acting is about the illusion of connection. And the phone call scene requires maybe the most explicit performance of that particular trick. We hear his voice, and we know he might not really be talking to Jane Adams or Adam Sandler or Patrick Fugit or Tom Cruise. But we know for sure he’s talking to us.