When a well-known actor dies, our minds tend to immediately jump to one particular film from their career. Sometimes it’s their most lauded and famous role, like when my mind immediately jumped to Lawrence of Arabia when I heard that Peter O’Toole had died. Other times the mind leaps to something more personal. When I heard that Philip Seymour Hoffman had died yesterday at the age of 46, from an apparent drug overdose, my mind instantly went to Twister. It’s not a role that won him any awards or critical acclaim, nor is it a film that’s particularly well thought of, despite its frequent showings on cable. However, it is one of my favorite films (for many reasons, which I won’t go into here), and it will always be the film I associate with him.
Other pieces will focus on his Academy Award-winning role as Truman Capote in Capote, and rightly so. Hoffman’s performance, which steered clear of the style of impersonation that often plagues biopics, was rich and complex without being overplayed, a quality that he carried to all of his performances. Other articles will focus on his supporting roles in major dramas like The Ides of March, Moneyball, Doubt, Charlie Wilson’s War, and The Master (the last three of which earned him Oscar nominations), to which he brought a sense of realism that helped to either ground a film or elevate it, depending on the role. Hoffman frequently appeared in the films of Paul Thomas Anderson, with roles in 5 of the director’s films, including a memorable turn as a gay boom operator in Boogie Nights, which served as his first exposure in a highly-praised drama (if you don’t count his role in Scent of a Woman five years earlier).
He appeared in blockbusters, too, from Twister all the way to last year’s The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, where he showed an ability to work in a variety of genres. His villainous turn in Mission: Impossible III was what truly sold the film, giving the action series an enemy whose cold callousness was far more terrifying than whatever device Tom Cruise’s team was chasing, while Hoffman had barely begun to scratch the surface of Plutarch Heavensbee in The Hunger Games. (Hoffman reportedly had completed all of his filming for this year’s Mockingjay – Part 1, and had just a week left for Mockingjay – Part 2. It’s unknown at this point how the film series will handle his death.) He also had a successful stage career, earning Tony nominations for his performances on Broadway in True West, Long Day’s Journey into Night and Death of a Salesman.
Still other articles will focus on the nature of his death, highlighting both his lifelong struggle with drug addiction and the shocking and headline-worthy details of the scene of his death. Interestingly, the reaction to Hoffman’s death has been very different from that of Cory Monteith last year, despite the fact that heroin played a role in both deaths. Where Monteith’s death was treated as a tragedy by the media, with a focus on his devastated fans and his friends and family left behind, the reaction to Hoffman has been decidedly more callous. Perhaps their ages have something to do with it. Hoffman wasn’t a young, rising star whose lost potential could be a focal point of the news, nor was he a beloved icon who died after a long and full career. Instead, Hoffman left us in the middle of a career arc that had produced some outstanding performances and yet with many more ahead that we will now never get to see. What infuriates me, however, is the reaction I’ve seen online that seems to imply that he somehow had this coming, which is remarkably unfeeling and distasteful, and shows a shocking level of ignorance about addiction. While a frank conversation about drug use and addiction is always a good thing, the portrayal of a heroin overdose as nothing more than a bad decision does nothing to help those out there who struggle with these issues, and it neglects the impact that Hoffman’s death will have on his family and his three young children.
I choose, instead, to focus on his work, and for me it all revolves around Twister and his performance as Dusty, which has largely been ignored in the articles I’ve read in the past 24 hours. I was 11 when Twister came out, and for me it was the epitome of summer blockbuster excitement. I still have a vivid memory of seeing it in the theater; it was the first film I ever saw in a stadium seating theater and we sat on the top row above a packed house and it was approximately 500 degrees throughout the film. (The movie theater had just opened and I assume they hadn’t worked out their air conditioning yet.) I loved the film’s combination of action movie and disaster film (a genre that had declined significantly from its peak in the 70s and 80s), the soundtrack to the film is one of my all-time favorites, and I still believe that the film has the greatest visual effects ever seen onscreen. But it’s the characters that sucked (pun intended) me into the film when I first saw it and are what keep me coming back over and over again. I love Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt as Bill and Jo, but it’s the crew of stormchasers that caught my eye (and also led a million kids to be interested in meteorology and the Weather Channel), and Dusty stood out among them.
With his long, stringy blonde hair, his red baseball cap, and a set of headphones perpetually around his neck, Hoffman’s Dusty was at first appearance a dorky slacker. He seems almost out of place among the otherwise scientific-types of the storm chasing crew. It’s not a coincidence that he’s always bringing up the rear of the group in his shortbus, “Barn Burner”. He comes off as a bit of a stoner, talking about things like “the Suck Zone” as if it’s deep wisdom and using some bizarre vocabulary to make his points (Joss Whedon did some uncredited rewrites and script work on the film, and I strongly believe only he could have come up with a line like, “He’s gonna rue the day he came up against The Extreme… I’m talking imminent rue-age.”) But once you’ve watched the film several times, you realize that there’s surprising depth to Hoffman’s performance.
On the surface Dusty is the group’s mascot and cheerleader, always enthusiastic and excited, whether by the amazing weather they witness or by the prospect of Aunt Meg’s famous gravy. He tells outrageous stories and is seemingly the life and soul of the party. But beyond that he embodies the rock ‘n’ roll spirit of both the film and the storm chasers, in some cases literally by cranking out the tunes while they chase tornados. In many ways, the film’s soundtrack seems plugged straight into Dusty, with Van Halen, Eric Clapton, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Goo Goo Dolls seemingly offered up by him to accompany the film. He’s set in stark contrast to “villain” Jonas Miller, whose sleekly corporate style clashes with Dusty’s brash individuality. Dusty embodies one side of the choice that Bill is facing in the film, between weatherman and researcher, between money and fame on one side and a life of interesting characters and meaningful research but poor and rough around the edges on the other side.
Despite being a supporting character, Dusty plays a major part in the arcs of the main characters of the film. He’s there encouraging Bill when he takes his first steps back into storm chasing and he helps show Bill’s fiancé, Melissa, the life she’s competing with. But Hoffman takes a well-written character and breathes life into him. In particular is the moment after they have rescued Aunt Meg from her collapsed house, while Joe and Meg are sitting in the ambulance and Jo is agonizing over how close she came to losing her closest relative. Dusty is watching the news and sees that the tornado has become an F-5, the same sort of tornado which killed Jo’s father, and he rushes to tell Jo the news. But when he arrives he sees the state Jo is in and realizes what the news will mean to her, and how hard it will hit her. He only has a line or two, but he delivers the news in such a halting, apologetic and painful way that it tells us a lot about both Dusty and Jo. He delivers the line in a way that deflects all of the attention about the news from him and allows the scene to focus on Helen Hunt’s Jo, which is something that is remarkably rare and difficult for an actor to do. It’s in the little moments like these where Hoffman shined, both in his ability to bring depth and realism to a role, and his generosity as an actor.
Philip Seymour Hoffman could be remarkably entertaining as an actor, but balanced that with a soft, genuine side that kept things grounded. He had a huge talent, whether starring in big films or supporting in small ones, and seemed to treat the material he was performing with respect no matter its source or genre. Whether humorous or dramatic, he always brought depth of feeling to each role he played, turning potentially one-dimensional characters into rounded characters that felt like real people. He was never showy or flashy, but down-to-earth and genuine. At 46, there was still so much more he could have done, and the thought of what we’ll miss out on is almost as sad as the thought of the family he left behind. But he left us some memorable roles, and for that I will be thankful.