Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a bi-weekly column exploring the art behind some of cinema’s best roles. This entry spotlights Philip Seymour Hoffman as Freddie Miles in The Talented Mr. Ripley.
At the thirty-five minute mark of The Talented Mr. Ripley, a cherry red Alfa Romeo pulls to a crooked stop in the palazzo of the fictional town of Mongibello. Out climbs Freddie Miles, his bow-tied, cherubic physique standing in stark contrast to nearly every well-chiseled man and lithe woman we’ve met so far. Taking in the crowded square like a kid in a candy store with his allowance burning a hole in his pockets, he drawls to no one in particular, “Don’t you want to fuck every woman you see just once?”
As far as entrances go, Philip Seymour Hoffman couldn’t have asked for a better one. While his role in the 1999 Patricia Highsmith adaptation wasn’t his first, it was the first time we got to see him do what he would do so many more times in his career: take a handful of minutes of screen time and turn them into the most memorable part of the film.
When we talk about actors we lost too soon, it’s often as much about the work we missed out on as the work we witnessed, With Hoffman, an actor who never shied away from nuanced and complex characters, it means missing out on something he did perhaps more enjoyably than anyone of his generation: playing an absolute prick that was unendingly fun to watch.
As Freddie Miles, the snobbish Ivy League rich boy, Hoffman presents us with a grown man who flounces around Europe as a pampered fancy-lad, often seeming only one belt size removed from the prep school uniforms of his spoiled youth. It’s a familiar character type, one that Hoffman was also likely very familiar with in his real life. As the son of a Xerox executive and a judge, while attending New York University in the 1980s he must have crossed paths with exactly that type of character once or twice.
The lazy trust-fund layabout is familiar to anyone who passed within a mile of a private school. It’s an archetype as old as royalty, as marked by their signet rings and sports cars as by their old-money surnames and Kennedy-adjacent family trees. Hoffman inhabits it with the kind of ease that suggests more than a passing familiarity with the Freddies of the world.
What Hoffman’s performance really revolves around, what makes him so memorable, is his indulgence. Freddie eats and drinks and fucks his way across Italy, wintering at ski resorts and summering on the Amalfi coast. And even more so than Jude Law’s Dickie Greenleaf, he exudes the mindless consumption of the wealthy and directionless, from his opening salvo about women, to his sizeable gut, to his absolute and utter dismissal of Matt Damon’s Tom Ripley the second he judges that he can’t get anything from him.
The casual way Freddie pours a full measure of someone else’s wine into a water glass and knocks it down without so much as a moment’s pause for an invitation. Much like his real-life proximity to the type of well-heeled elite that populate much of the film, the indulgence was also incredibly familiar to Hoffman. Years before either fame or fortune could have made it a cliche, Hoffman struggled with addiction and checked into rehab at the tender age of twenty-two.
That’s something that wouldn’t feel out of place in Freddie Miles’ character bio. Committing to sobriety through his twenties must have given him a unique perspective on characters such as Freddie and the short-sighted results of living a life so fast and loose. And though he stayed sober for much of his adult life, Hoffman told Rolling Stone in 2005 that he still had vices: “Pure mouth – cigarettes and food, but probably cigarettes more than food.”
This drive for consumption, for overindulgence, kept in check by his sobriety and his intensity for his work, is a central component of Freddie. The character is someone who has never checked his appetites or had them checked for him.
Freddie’s greatest hunger is for attention. He chaffs at Tom’s infiltration of Dickie’s life, demanding all of his friend’s attention for himself. Freddie’s final scene, in which he confronts Tom about Dickie’s absence and ultimately seals his fate, isn’t motivated by an honest worry for a friend’s well-being, but by the simple fact that Dickie hadn’t talked to him in far too long. He hadn’t been supplying Freddie with attention. And that Freddie couldn’t abide.
Hoffman fills this scene with so many infuriating and funny details, the way he judges and dismisses the room piece by piece with his eyes, manhandles the piano and bust of Hadrian, examines Dickie’s saxophone like an alien object. He picks apart the room in a child’s imitation of a detective, moving everything just enough out of place to be annoying. When Tom finally smashes Freddie’s head in with Hadrian’s, you almost understand it.
There are other early roles more often associated with Hoffman’s breakout. Among them are his first two collaborations with Paul Thomas Anderson, and there are some fantastic performances from this era to be sure. There’s something, though, about his Freddie Miles that feels more three-dimensional. Something that feels more lived-in and real.
It’s not quite his first “grown-up” role, but Hoffman’s performance grounds it in a kind of realism we hadn’t seen from him yet. His later acclaim for playing real people like Lester Bangs and Truman Capote with such dedication and attention to detail can first be seen here in The Talented Mr. Ripley, playing a character not too removed from his own experiences in indulgence and privilege. It’s a great performance from a young artist who was only just beginning to show the range and skill he would use to become one of the greatest actors of his generation or any other.