Paul Thomas Anderson and Philip Seymour Hoffman may not come as immediately to mind when thinking of successful director/actor partnerships as other pairings, but just because they've flown slightly under the radar (a result, perhaps, of two of their early efforts being very much "ensemble" pieces) doesn't mean that their work together hasn't been vitally important. With Anderson, Hoffman has enjoyed a series of diverse and interesting characters, and with Hoffman, Anderson has had the benefit of a consistently great character actor who can work across genres. Theirs may be a quieter, less flashy partnership than other director/actor pairings, but it's one of modern cinema's most fruitful.
Hoffman's role in Hard Eight is very small, but very memorable. As an obnoxious, mulletted craps player who very briefly makes Philip Baker Hall's life hell with his "friendly" banter, Hoffman makes the most of every second he's on screen. What's more, the way that Anderson uses him here shows that he had a firm grasp, even early on in his career, of how to incorporate the little touches into the story in order to bring the bigger picture into even sharper relief.
Hoffman had a lot more to do in Anderson's next film, playing a character that is pretty much the polar opposite of his unnamed character from Hard Eight. Whereas that character was brash and confident, Boogie Night's Scotty J., a boom operator for porn films, is shy and scared, lusting after porn star Dirk Diggler and desperate for his attention. Scotty is one of the film's more tragic characters because he leaves himself so vulnerable and takes rejection so hard, and Hoffman's performance is beautifully nuanced. It's also perfectly deployed by Anderson, who uses Scotty's yearning devotion to Dirk as one of the film's means of establishing Dirk's "legendary" status, which he first earns, then loses, then has a chance to regain during the course of the film.
In Magnolia, Hoffman plays one of the few stabilizing characters amongst a cast of characters careening through crisis. As Phil, the nurse caring for the terminally ill character played by Jason Robards, Hoffman perfectly inhabits the kind of even toned caretaker who is able to have compassion for the sick person, while still dealing with the illness itself in a direct and uncompromising way. Hoffman doesn't get the "big" moments enjoyed by some of his co-stars, such as Tom Cruise, Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, and Robards, but what he brings to the film is absolutely essential. His character helps to provide Magnolia with a sense of balance necessary for its success and as portrayed by Hoffman and framed by Anderson, Phil is more than merely the axl connecting the members of the Partridge/Mackey clan and allowing them to reach their points of catharsis - he's one of the story's most realistically human characters.
Punch Drunk Love is a departure for Anderson, being a tightly plotted and quickly unfolding dark comedy, and though it stars Adam Sandler, it's Hoffman's performance that is the most broadly funny. As the owner of a mattress store and the "supervisor" of a sex line that's actually a means of scamming callers, Hoffman plays a character who is believably tough... until the moment when he's challenged and hilariously backs down. Anderson uses Hoffman judiciously in this film, which is much to its benefit because the "unseen" aspect makes him much more menacing until the moment when it's revealed that he's all bark and no bite.
I didn't love The Master, but Hoffman's performance in it as the cult leader not at all based on L. Ron Hubbard was one of my favorites of 2012. I would go so far as to say that Hoffman's performance in The Master is the towering achievement of the actor's career (so far). His Lancaster Dodd is a man who can firmly command a room, but has seemingly no command over his private life, a man who is sharp and charismatic but also has dangerously thin skin. Anderson provides just enough of a view of Dodd's skill as a charlatan to justify the messianic treatment he receives from his followers, while also working with Hoffman to strip Dodd away to almost nothing, exposing him as the empty shell he really is. Although as The Master unfolds Dodd is given to increasing outbursts of rage, Hoffman's performance is one built on subtlety and restraint, working in perfect harmony with the more volatile performance of his co-star, Joaquin Phoenix.
Hoffman won't feature in Anderson's next film, an adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice, and although that's a shame since they've done such consistently excellent work together, by the same token it would be hard to follow-up on what they accomplished with The Master. With five films to their credit, all of them having more than their share of champions even if they aren't all universally beloved, Anderson and Hoffman certainly belong in the pantheon of great director/actor partnerships.
Next Time: Alfred Hitchcock & Cary Grant