Philip Seymour Hoffman was such a towering presence in 21st-century film that it’s almost easy to forget that he came to us as a ready-made character actor, seemingly bound for a cinematic life playing schlubby friends, creepy accomplices, mopey brothers and de-sexed dads. The fact that he transcended this destiny to become a performer capable of not only carrying movies but essentially crafting them in his image—it’s impossible to imagine films like Capote or Synecdoche, New York with anyone but Hoffman at their center—speaks to the power of being just plain better at what you do than most people on earth.
But that was now, and this is then. Like many people the first time I noticed Hoffman was in one of the great “character” parts in film, his portrayal of the painfully awkward, sexually repressed boom operator Scotty in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1997 porn epic Boogie Nights. At the time of its release Boogie Nights was a startling film, from its subject matter to its ambition to its remarkable warmth and humanity. Even with its harrowing (and let’s face it, overly long) last act it’s still the most purely enjoyable film that Anderson has ever made, stylish, thrilling, irrepressibly sexy almost in spite of itself. It made Mark Wahlberg a star (again) and boasted an embarrassment of supporting-cast riches: Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly, Don Cheadle, William H. Macy, a roller-skating Heather Graham, Burt Reynolds(!), even a small but memorable turn from real-life porn star Nina Hartley. And of course there was Hoffman, who turned a character that lesser filmmakers wouldn’t even bother writing into a figure of complexity and shocking depth.
The most famous of Hoffman’s scenes in Boogie Nights—and one of the most famous scenes of the film, period—comes when he makes a clumsy pass at Wahlberg’s character, Dirk Diggler, at a New Year’s Eve party in 1979. The party is the turning point of the film, the moment the good times start drying up, and beneath their surface lies dread. Hoffman’s scene is our first glimpse of failure, the gathering nightmare of dreams not coming true. It’s one sustained cringe, from the reveal of the Corvette to the rebuffed kiss to the lingering shot of Scotty in the car, alone, sobbing “I’m a fucking idiot” as Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd St. Rhythm Band’s “Do Your Thing” rises in the background.
The scene has endured, for both its greatness and its strange campiness: the fevered homoeroticism, Wahlberg’s inimitable Dorchester earnestness (“Scawtty!”), the nearly unwatchable discomfort of its closing frames (the sly jump-cut to Scotty in the car is the scene’s only edit). It also has a bottomless capacity for reference: at the time of this writing that YouTube clip has nearly 60,000 views and most of them have come from friends and co-workers reflexively forwarding it, reveling in the life mistakes of others. Like the “coffee is for closers” speech in Glengarry Glen Ross or Cam’ron on The O’Reilly Factor it has become an eccentric cultural shorthand: We know what it means without even having to watch it.
Which is kind of a shame, because it’s a virtuosic two minutes of film. Good actors will tell you that playing a drunk person is one of the hardest feats in acting, because it’s so easy to take it as license to just spiral into chaos. The uncanny power of this scene comes from the fact that we’re not even sure if Scotty is really drunk, or at least, we know drunkenness is a bogus excuse—it’s one of cinema’s great in vino veritas moments. Hoffman gives a perfectly controlled performance of a man losing control, first of his inhibitions and then his emotions, a perversely natural portrayal of colossal awkwardness.
It is a tough watch on any day, and today more than most. He’s so young, so talented, so alive. Paul Thomas Anderson and Philip Seymour Hoffman would collaborate on other great films but Boogie Nights remains special, a breakthrough in every sense. In 1997 Paul Thomas Anderson already knew what the rest of us would soon learn, that Philip Seymour Hoffman was a star, a big bright shining star.
Read more of Slate’s coverage of Philip Seymour Hoffman.