It surely diminishes Philip Seymour Hoffman to remember him for only one role. In light of the actor's death on Sunday, many are remembering Hoffman, 46, for his entire body of work and wealth of memorable roles. But every admirer of Hoffman has a favorite role of his.
Hoffman's portrayal of A's manager Art Howe in 2011's Moneyball might not be one of them, considering how small the part was. Yet that might also be the role some people remember him in. I overheard a conversation basically saying as much at the grocery store soon after Hoffman's death made the news. But being remembered for a small role in a baseball movie actually speaks to Hoffman's range and talent.
Sure, he is likely best known for playing Truman Capote, a performance that won him a Best Actor Academy Award. Yet Hoffman wasn't above playing a supporting role, especially for Moneyball director Bennett Miller, who also helmed Capote. And as Howe, Hoffman represented one of the "villains" of the story, the manager who wouldn't give in to Billy Beane's lineup suggestions and roster decisions, moves dictated by the advanced metrics the front office was now embracing.
Howe famously didn't care for Hoffman's version of him in the movie. For one thing, the pudgy Hoffman didn't resemble the fit, trim former major leaguer. But more than the physical aspect of Hoffman's performance, Howe didn't like how his relationship with Beane was depicted in the movie. For instance, according to Howe, his contract was never an issue with the A's front office.
"They didn’t do their homework as far as the movie was concerned because I was on a two-year contract through 2003," Howe told Zachary Levine, writing for the Houston Chronicle in 2011. "I had another year after that. My agent always took care of my contract; I never negotiated with Billy, especially not in the hallway of the clubhouse. Never happened."
Additionally, Howe was worried that people might form an impression from him based on what they saw in the movie. Was he a stick-in-the-mud traditionalist stubbornly refusing to use data provided to him by the front office? Was he essentially a figurehead who sat in the dugout while Beane ran the team? Considering Howe hasn't been hired as a manager since being dismissed by the Mets after the 2004 season, maybe he's correct about how he's perceived. (Though that .424 winning percentage with the Mets might be a factor as well.)
But back to Hoffman's performance as Howe. The following scene sums it up, and arguably represents the movie in a microcosm. Hoffman's Howe is a by-the-book manager who doesn't like having his lineup dictated by the general manager and wants to start the promising Carlos Pena at first base. Beane and assistant Peter Brand think Scott Hatteberg is the kind of player they want in the lineup because his ability to take pitches and get on base were skills that could generate offense (and for a lower price).
OK, you surely know that story already. But if you didn't (or needed a reminder), Hoffman's demeanor in that scene explains everything. His cold expression, pause before speaking and annoyed sigh when Beane asks him if he had a minute simply displayed the tension between Howe and his boss.
When Howe's told that he can't start Pena, Hoffman doesn't rage and chew the scenery. He simply looks at Beane with confidence and defiance and draws a line. Yes, he'll start Pena because that's his decision and the manager makes the call on the lineup. And when he's informed that Pena's been traded, Hoffman doesn't pop his eyes or scream "WHAT?" He has a look of quiet disbelief, stunned that his GM has just traded such a talent, apparently to make a point. Howe suddenly can't believe what's going on.
All of that comes across in this scene which takes less than a minute. I don't know if it was an intentional choice or not, but Hoffman's chubby physique actually makes him look more like an old-time skipper, who manages (figuratively) with his gut. Contrast that with Brad Pitt's Beane, ridiculously handsome, in great shape and dressed casually. Purely from a visual standpoint, you can see the difference between the two men without even knowing about their differing baseball philosophies.
Moneyball would've been a good movie with someone else portraying Howe. But it was better because Hoffman was in the role, playing it exactly as it needed to be played. He made even the small parts — such as a baseball manager being marginalized — memorable.