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The Least-Heralded Greatest Actor of His Generation

Photo Credit: Andrea Raffin / Shutterstock.com

Did the Media Hype Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Life at his Death, or Did It Miss The Story?

By Mike Kuczkowski

 

There he is, as vital as ever, impossibly alive in character: Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing a John LeCarré spymaster in “A Most Wanted Man.” Another great Hoffman performance, punctuating our loss of his presence in cinema.

In February, when I heard Hoffman had died, I experienced that odd range of emotions reserved for those who have touched us but with whom we have no personal relationship. Surprise. Shock. Sadness. A sense of loss. A sense that something pained and vulnerable must have been behind those pained and vulnerable characters he played with such consistent excellence on the big screen.

I recalled his turns as the bratty snitch in “Scent of A Woman.” And as Ben Stiller’s gross sidekick in “Along Came Polly.” And Scotty J., Lester Bangs, Father Flynn, Capote, The Master… a long line of characters, all of whom were made more remarkable by the craft Hoffman brought to the roles.

Then came the claim “the greatest actor of his generation.”  Was he? Maybe so. He was a fine actor, no question about it. But the greatest of his generation? I really didn’t know.

As someone who sees a fair number of movies each year and consumes even more movie reviews and film industry media coverage, I felt like I should have known the answer to that question. Had I missed the memo from the critics, or was this something that was just unsaid before his too-early passing. And, if it was the latter, how does that square with our relentless, 24/7, gossip-tinged media coverage of Hollywood, in which the least significant celebrity sighting can get top billing from TMZ.com?

Rating a Generation

Let’s break it down. The first step is to define what constitutes Hoffman’s ”generation” of actors. This is trickier than it might appear. He’s clearly not part of the Jack Nicholson, Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino cohort, all of whom are 70+. Is he in the same generation as George Clooney? Or Leonardo DiCaprio? If so, how does he compare?

I looked at the 66 actors who have been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Performance as an Actor in a Leading Role from 1997. Of those, 21 actors are between the ages of 39 and 50. Let’s say that’s Hoffman’s “generation.” (Clooney, at 53, misses the cut.)

Using data from IMDB.com, I looked at how many awards these actors have been nominated for and won. I created a metric, which I’ll call “Awardscore.” The Awardscore gives each star 10 points for an Oscar win – whether in a supporting or leading role – and five for an acting Oscar nomination. Wins and nominations for less prestigious awards were given two and one points, respectively.

The results (see chart below) make a strong case that Philip Seymour Hoffman was indeed the greatest, or at least the most decorated, actor of his generation.

Best Actors of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Generation

Actor Age Noms Wins Oscar Noms Oscar Wins Awardscore
Philip Seymour Hoffman 46 64 88 4 1 270
Javier Bardem 45 53 91 3 1 260
Leonardo DiCaprio 39 122 50 4 0 242
Brad Pitt 50 84 54 3 0 207
Johnny Depp 51 80 54 3 0 203
Heath Ledger 35 36 71 2 1 198
Will Smith 46 87 48 2 0 193
Christian Bale 40 56 58 2 1 192
Jamie Foxx 46 58 49 2 1 176
Russell Crowe 50 52 43 3 1 163
Matt Damon 43 80 33 2 0 156
Chiwetel Ejiofor 37 52 47 1 0 151
Joaquin Phoenix 40 70 32 3 0 149
Robert Downey Jr. 49 69 33 2 0 145
Nicolas Cage 50 45 39 2 1 143
Don Cheadle 50 77 30 1 0 142
Matthew McConaughey 45 38 40 1 1 133

SOURCE: Orangefiery analysis of data from imdb.com, search conducted Aug. 4, 2014, updated Aug. 23.

I also looked at Metascore, from the review aggregator site “Metacritic.” On this metric, which measures the quality of the films in which he appeared, Hoffman again outperformed his peers with a lifetime Metascore of 67, five points ahead of Bardem, Damon and Renner, who lead the rest of the pack. Given the volume and range of films in which he appeared, from “Almost Famous” to the forgettable “Patch Adams,” I was surprised that his lead was so pronounced. He’s a full 11 points above the average, 20% better than the mean. This suggests Hoffman took the films he was in and made them better.

Assessing the Critics

So, there is a strong case that Hoffman was his generation’s greatest actor. Which leads to my last question: Was this something unsaid, or something I had missed?

The Factiva media database shows were 338 articles published between January 1, 2000 and January 31, 2014 using the phrase “greatest actor of his generation”. Of those, most referred to Sir Laurence Olivier (20+), Marlon Brando (20+ times, mostly focused on his death in 2004), Robert DeNiro (15), Sean Penn (12) and Daniel Day-Lewis (8). (Note: Day-Lewis, at 57, has a very strong claim to being today’s greatest actor with five Oscar nominations and a record three wins and an Awardscore of 332 in just 29 credited roles).

Of Hoffman’s contemporaries, DiCaprio was mentioned eight times. Robert Downey Jr. also had eight articles mention him with that phrase, often immediately contrasted with his drug problems. Russell Crowe received five mentions, including two lengthy examinations of his career in his native Australian press. Ryan Gosling was associated with the phrase four times. Ed Norton and Kevin Spacey, three each.

Hoffman was mentioned in four articles, always in passing. Once by Sean Penn, in an interview with Piers Morgan (Morgan replied, “Really?”). Once James Corden, in his 2012 Tony Award acceptance speech (Hoffman had been nominated for his performance in “Death of a Salesman.”) New York Times critic A.O. Scott mentions Hoffman as the second-greatest working actor, behind Day-Lewis, in a 2013 Oscar preview with Charlie Rose. No in-depth appreciation, no feature piece on his body of work in a major publication. It’s as though he was appreciated by his peers as a great actor, but the media just wasn’t interested.

A similar search for the phrase “best actor of his generation” yielded 278 articles. Many more mentions for Norton, Crowe, Spacey, DiCaprio. New mentions of Johnny Depp and Joaquin Phoenix. Hoffman? Not a single one.

Perhaps the most prescient, if not ironic, piece of coverage is a 2012 New York Times blog that asked the question, “Is Mark Wahlberg the Greatest Actor of His Generation?” The piece explores how many Oscar-worthy roles Wahlberg had, compared with the likes of Matt Damon, DiCaprio, Paul Giamatti and (describing him as the “big gun”) Hoffman. Tongue firmly in cheek, author Adam Sternbergh says “raise your hand if you thought the Greatest Actor of His Generation title bout would come down to Philip Seymour Hoffman and Mark Wahlberg.” Huh.

So there it is, like a needle in a haystack. The clearest declaration that Hoffman was the best of his time came at 4:12 pm on February 2, 2014, when The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson declared, “Philip Seymour Hoffman: The Greatest Actor of His Generation.” Just less than 6 hours after the Wall Street Journal broke the news that Hoffman had died in his Manhattan apartment. After that, 17 additional unique pieces echoed the sentiment. Suddenly, a critical consensus had formed.

Parting Thoughts

So, yes, Hoffman was one of the greatest actors of his generation. And, no, we didn’t say so while he might have heard us. One wonders if it would have made a difference. To Hoffman, and equally to us. I suppose it’s an unfortunate human tendency, to save the kindest words and most meaningful critical appraisals for obituaries.

It’s also easy, but accurate, to say that media coverage of an actor’s untimely death represents us at our worst. The media said so little when it might have mattered, and then pried so much when tragedy struck. It’s a phenomenon best described by the singer-songwriter Marc Mulcahy in “Where’s the Indifference Now?” — a song inspired by media coverage surrounding the death of Heath Ledger:

Get a picture of his girlfriend crying

Flowers strewn around the entrance

His parents are asking for some time to grieve

Even better can’t just everybody leave

Still, it does make me feel as though we could do better when it comes to appreciating the cumulative contributions being made by our great artists. Some stars, like Crowe or Downey Jr., seem to attract media star treatment, perhaps because they are bold enough to declare their ambitions aloud. Others gain coverage for their striking handsomeness, if not their public trials and travails. Perhaps Hoffman was overlooked because he was not as attractive, generally, as others on this list. One way or the other, we missed a big story.

One thing I would urge the media to do: assign a major piece on Javier Bardem. He wasn’t mentioned a single time with the phrase “greatest actor of his generation.” And with Hoffman gone, there’s a compelling case that he is.

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