The late Philip Seymour Hoffman was without question one of the greatest actors of his generation. Through his performances, he provided the ideal model of what a good screen actor should be. As with any actor, much of that quality came from the directors he worked with. But I would argue that his performances go beyond adept direction. One of Hoffman’s best and final starring roles came in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master as cult leader Lancaster Dodd. It’s a performance of such tremendous range and complexity that it provides a perfect encapsulation of Hoffman’s entire career.
Dodd doesn’t appear until twenty minutes into The Master. The film begins with shiftless Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) as he searches for the man he wants to be post-World War II. Quell is the center of practically every frame in those opening twenty minutes, and it’s only when Dodd shows up that the camera drifts away from him for the first time. In a tracking shot, the camera follows Quell down a dock before abruptly shifting focus to a nearby boat party. It’s nearly impossible to distinguish any faces, but Hoffman literally pulls focus. This shot has more to do with Quell’s connection to Dodd, but it’s notable that Hoffman can have a strong on-screen presence even while barely being visible.
There’s another sequence early on in which Dodd doesn’t appear at all, but the spectre of Hoffman’s presence still hovers over each frame. Quell assaults a man whose photograph he’s taking, and the man looks uncannily like Dodd. Neither the audience nor Quell knows this (some critics incorrectly assumed this man was Dodd). In that scene, Anderson does a brilliant job of playing with Hoffman’s magnetism, teasing the audience by showing him and not showing him at the same time.
Hoffman’s turn as Dodd is unique for its sheer versatility. Dodd is many things to many people (he says as much in his first scene) and his entire persona changes based on who he’s addressing. Most of the time, actors focus on basic character traits in their performances; this character is cruel, that one is caring, this one is smug, and so on. Many actors are trained to build characters around these kinds of adjectives, but Hoffman’s Dodd eschews this trend through contradiction. To his devoted followers, he’s a combination of a cool uncle and a revival preacher, laid-back but unwavering in his beliefs. He’s endlessly charismatic, but not a single word lacks gravity. Around Quell, he’s more paternal, but in a condescending way that’s at odds with the genial religious leader persona. When alone with his wife, he’s submissive and passive. The only common thread is his unshakeable faith. It’s easy to give the screenplay credit for this nuance, but it takes an actor of Hoffman’s caliber to sell it.
When confronted by outsiders, Dodd loses all his confidence, becoming defensive and insecure. We first see it in the scene where a man named John More (Christopher Evan Welch) accuses him of leading a cult. At first, Dodd tries to ignore him, but once they get into it, things go downhill fast. In the blink of an eye, the self-assured man we have come to know becomes petty and aggressive. The scene is written in such a way that Hoffman could’ve played it in Dodd’s calm and collected persona, but he doesn’t. Instead, he portrays Dodd at his most emotionally insecure.
It’s a strange choice for Hoffman to make Dodd so vulnerable as he debates the merits of his brainchild (“The Cause”), but that contradiction is at the core of his character. Whether it was the actor’s decision, Anderson’s, or both, Hoffman pulls off a herculean task. He brings to life a character who is never the same man twice, and still makes him feel like a coherent portrait of a human being.
John Moore’s challenge also offers one of the best examples of Hoffman’s way with profanity. He could drop an f-bomb like nobody else. Amid his ranting, you can see the way he molds his speech pattern to give that last “pig fuck!” as much power as possible. He gets moments like this in many of his films. For example, his curse-laden introduction in Charlie Wilson’s War gives a jolt of outrageous energy to a previously level-headed drama. In my favorite scene from Punch-Drunk Love, he and Adam Sandler berate each other over the phone in a similarly entertaining fashion.
All of these moments work because of the context the directors give to Hoffman. Suddenly, what you thought was a film’s ceiling on energy or excitement is destroyed. Some will argue, “Oh, well, that’s in the script. He didn’t write the script.” While that’s fair, it’s dishonest to imply that Hoffman had no impact on his performances. More importantly, these bits of dialogue are often more memorable for how they’re spoken than what he’s actually saying.
It’s difficult to say that Dodd was Hoffman’s best performance; his filmography is brimming with fantastic characters. You can see his final leading role now in A Most Wanted Man where he knocks it out of the park once again. It’s sad to think of all the great performances of his that we’ll never get to see, but it’s nice to know that he was capable of such dramatic power at the end of his career. He has left a body of extraordinary work behind, and The Master is one of its peaks.