Character actor or the man who played himself? The Philip Seymour Hoffman contradiction

For better or worse, we will now always bring our knowledge of the real person to the screen presence of this hugely talented actor


In the career appraisals that accompanied the outpouring of grief over the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman there was a striking contradiction.

He was, said some critics, the consummate character actor. He was, said other critics, a man who to some degree played himself, and was attracted to roles of men with deep insecurities. Indeed, comparisons were made with Orson Welles and Welles’s own doubts about his career. Variety cited Seymour Hoffman’s performance in The Master - “one in which Hoffman, with his stout frame and arch, declamatory speech patterns, suddenly seemed possessed in body and spirit by Orson Welles.”

A character actor will subsume himself in the personality, soul, even looks of the person he is playing, as Seymour Hoffman did in his Oscar-winning performance as Truman Capote in Capote, almost seeming to shrink to the writer’s diminutive frame, just as stage actor Mark Rylance seemed to grow and expand his body in his award-winning role in Jerusalem. An actor who merely plays himself, or even just aspects of himself, is surely the opposite of a character actor.

Can those contrasting approaches ever be reconciled? I’d suggest that such a thing is mighty rare, but that it did seem to happen with Philip Seymour Hoffman. Equally, I’d suggest that some of those critics who identified pain and insecurity in Hoffman’s film roles did so with the knowledge they had gained after his death about his off-screen torments.

Henceforth, it seems to me, the off-screen and on-screen Hoffman persona will be increasingly difficult to separate.  For what particularly interests me is not so much how we have viewed Hoffman’s performances in the past (well covered in the tributes and obituaries) but how we will view them from now on.

Film performances, unlike those on the stage, cannot change, and yet with what we now know about Seymour Hoffman - his addiction, his pain, his demons - it will be nigh impossible to watch one of his great performances in precisely the same way. Just as Variety saw him channelling Orson Welles, so we will now see Philip Seymour Hoffman channelling Philip Seymour Hoffman.

We will see a troubled individual, even the addict. Just as we never really see a happy-go-lucky woman in the many happy-go-lucky parts that Marilyn Monroe played, because we know far too much about her real-life pain, so we will always bring our knowledge of the real person to the screen presence of Philip Seymour Hoffman. It’s a huge irony that one of the greatest screen character actors will never now be able to hide his real persona from the spectator.

Kylie's not the only bright/faded star on The Voice

The Voice on BBC1 on Saturday nights has been vastly improved by the introduction of Kylie as one of the judges. Hers is an infectious personality that lifts the programme. But there’s clearly something I’m not getting about this show. Surely the idea is that an unknown and untried singer tries to impress the judges. Last week one of the contestants in the blind auditions was a West End star, Leanne Jones, who had played the lead, no less, in the musical Hairspray - and won an Olivier Award for her performance. So, yes, she had a good voice. But she wasn’t exactly an ingenue. The embarrassing thing was that not one of the four judges selected her and she went home. Was it a good idea for her to go on the show? I think she and her agent should mull over that one.

UK theatre is enthralling but hungry work these days

The playwright Lolita Chakrabarti, whose brilliant debut Red Velvet is currently being revived, wrote an extremely brave and provocative article in this paper some days ago. She said that she had become disillusioned with theatre, the “extortionate ticket prices”, the sense of entitlement and exclusivity, the hyperbole over some shows, the “actors taking themselves too seriously.” I of course agree with her list, having harped on about extortionate ticket prices for some years now. Two trivial additions to the irritation list that I would make are theatre public address systems that are inaudible, and food areas that, even in the 21st century, take only cash and refuse to take cards. These last two I experienced this week when I was at London’s Tricycle Theatre to watch, utterly enthralled but a little hungry, Red Velvet by Lolita Chakrabarti.

David Lister is Arts Editor of the Independent.

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