Sunday, February 2, 2014
In Memorium: Philip Seymour Hoffman (1967-2014)
Blue-eyed and blonde-haired, yet often rumpled and unshaven, with a big body and a gentle soul, Philip Seymour Hoffman was committed to every role he assayed, regardless of its effect on his image. Adamantly devout to characters that were flawed, enraged or, indeed, near nervous collapse, Hoffman's death, on February 2nd, 2014 of a heroin overdose, has left a massive hole in the art world--one that can never be filled in quite the same way again.
A New York University alumni, in the early 90s Hoffman made the transition from an acclaimed stage star to tiny but impactful supporting roles in films like My New Gun, Leap of Faith, Scent of a Woman, Nobody's Fool, Hard Eight (the start of his career-long collaboration with Paul Thomas Anderson), When A Man Loves a Woman, and as a notably bright spot in the terrible box office hit Twister. But it was his portrayal of a sexually recalcitrant sound man in Anderson's Boogie Nights that brought him to our first and clearest attention. He was impossible to ignore after this:
His showing as Brandt, the toadying assistant in The Big Lebowski, cemented him in my mind as an actor to watch. For many, he provided some of the most subtle laughs in this gigantic cult film. Here, I love his ridiculous stiffness, his phony cackle, his mastery of the Coens' rubbery language ("They're the Little Lebowski Urban Achievers--inner-city children of promise but without the necessary means for a necessary means for a higher education"), how the breath leaves him after The Dude almost refers to Lebowski as "a cripple." And that moment where his whole body tenses up after asking Jeff Lebowski not to touch Mr. Lebowski's award? Golden:
Of course, over a tremendous career path, he kept on knocking it out of the park, as in Todd Solondz's 1998 film Happiness playing a lonely man suffering from a crippling depression. Now, given how he has passed, I wonder how much inspiration for this role was perhaps taken from his own life...
In P.T. Anderson's Magnolia--one of my favorite of his performances--he gets to be a hero for one of the few times in his career. His portrayal of Phil Parma, the hospice care worker devoted to a dying TV producer (Jason Robards) is a miracle of you-are-there acting. Though Anderson's film is filled with tremendous performances, it's Hoffman's appearance that really stays with you, because his character is only one in this mammoth movie who's completely giving. For this, he won the 1999 Supporting Actor award from the National Board of Review (they twinned it with his nasty supporting turn in Anthony Mingella's The Talented Mr. Ripley):
In Cameron Crowe's 2000 film Almost Famous, he undertook the role of famed music critic Lester Bangs, and became the truth-telling conscience of Crowe's largely autobiographical work. Is there any greater line than this: "The only true currency you carry in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you're uncool." With his often growly voice, Hoffman delivers the line with the assurance of someone who knows what he's talking about:
In Spike Lee's 25th Hour, Hoffman was terrific as a school teacher devoted to a pal (Edward Norton) destined for prison. In Todd Louiso's little seen Love Liza, he was devastating as a lover dealing with an ex's suicide:
And in Anderson's Punch Drunk Love, he was both doubtful and terrifying as a small-time con-man out to take advantage of an enraged Adam Sandler's loneliness (the concept of loneliness seems to be a through-line in Hoffman's career, and I don't think that's just hindsight talking here):
In the 2003 film Owning Mahoney, Hoffman is again superb as a gambling addict who doesn't know when to stop playing:
After more fine work in the HBO movie Empire Falls and in Mingella's Cold Mountain, then came Bennett Miller's 2005 biopic Capote. Though some said he was miscast in the role, being much taller and bigger than the diminutive author, Hoffman latched onto and owned the role. With his impeccable style and vocal gymnastics, it's clear no one had any problem (at the time, at least) with this magnificent performance. In one of the finest scenes in this underrated movie, Hoffman's Capote talks with a source for his book In Cold Blood, and reveals to her his most inner hurts:
For Capote, Hoffman won his only Academy Award, for Best Actor:
The award, and the following years, brought a hurricane of great acting from Hoffman to the fore. In Brad Bird's Mission Impossible III, he finally brought gravitas to a misbegotten series with his steely, superbly villainous support to his former Magnolia co-star Tom Cruise:
In Tamera Jenkins' underseen 2007 film The Savages, he paired with Laura Linney as the siblings trying to take care of an aging, unloved dad (Philip Bosco). And in Sidney Lumet's final film, Before The Devil Knows You're Dead, he played the desperate, drug-addicted son of a jewelry store owner to an ultimate degree. Opposite a withering Ethan Hawke, this is one of his bravest performances; it's impossible not to feel, to your toes, Hoffman's utter allegiance to this role:
In Mike Nichols' complex 2007 film Charlie Wilson's War, Hoffman brought a stern yet strange tenderness to his role as a wild CIA operative who becomes a guide through the machinations of modern foreign relations for Tom Hanks' distracted senator. Hoffman won his second Oscar nomination here, opposite Mad Men's John Slattery, for Best Supporting Actor:
Perhaps my favorite of his lead roles was for Charlie Kaufman's 2008 directorial debut in Synecdoche New York. Hoffman here makes you feel every moment of an unrecognized artist's life that's passing before our eyes. It's an incredibly difficult movie, but Hoffman--the biggest diamond in a jewel-studded cast--makes it work despite any misgivings the viewer might have. This would be my choice as the Hoffman performance I wish more people would see and appreciate:
With John Patrick Shanley's adaption of his play, Hoffman again deservedly landed a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination as priest battling the derision of a snarling Mother Superior (Meryl Streep) in 2008's Doubt:
I loved his nearly unrecognizable foray into animation voicing, as the cloistered pen-pal of a little girl in Adam Elliot's brilliant stop-motion film Mary and Max:
And, again, I loved his quiet supporting portrayal of a baseball team manager who feels he's being undercut by a new way of crafting a team's roster in Bennett Miller's incredible Moneyball, from 2011:
Hoffman contributed his sole film directorial effort with 2010's mournful Jack Goes Boating. He continued to make deep impressions with movies like A Late Quartet (a beautiful film, that)...
...and in George Clooney's The Ides of March, and the immensely popular The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (he was filming its sequel, Mockingjay, at the time of his death, and it's not known at press time whether he completed the role). But it was with P.T. Anderson's 2012 film The Master that he gave arguably his greatest performance as the megalomanical cult leader Lancaster Dodd, opposite Joachin Phoenix as his obsession-worthy friend Freddie Quell and Amy Adams as Dodd's controlling wife. A co-lead with Phoenix, Hoffman was wrongfully placed in the supporting role when it came time for the awards to be handed out, and so he easily earned his final Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. But, man, just LOOK at this scene, where Dodd uses his method of breaking down a person's most secret wounds on Quell. This is astounding work, on an equal par with Phoenix's magnificence:
With all this, plus all of his landmark stage work as an actor, writer and director--in Sam Shepard's True West (switching roles on alternate nights with John C. Reilly), in Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night, and as Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's Death of a Saleman in particular--well, anyone would have to conclude that all actors would have given their very guts for a career like this.
A month or more ago, I had read about Hoffman's incomprehensible heroin problem, and understood he'd checked himself into a treatment facility. Not being one to pay extra attention to actors' personal lives, I'd hoped this was a mere dalliance with the drug and that he was getting it taken care of. But I do have to admit, this past week, seeing Victoria Will's photo taken for Esquire at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, I instantly became extremely worried for him; his look is of a man spent, and though the picture is intentionally antiquated, with its ghostly impressions, it seems to intuitively illustrate the bottom of this man's downward spiral. And only now I learn this was an ongoing battle for him.
I'm torn up and crying over this--Hoffman was a highly unusual and courageous actor, unafraid of going to the darkest places and yet always we were there with him, simply because there was just something so intrinsically lovable about him. I wonder if he knew we all felt this way. Somehow, given how it all turned out for him, I think not. And, more than I once did, I'm forced into noticing his own personal hurt buried in his portrayals of the damaged. I also have to wonder if he gave perhaps too much of himself to his roles; their complexity and nakedness perhaps depleted him (acting, contrary to many opinions, is not the easiest art to tackle). But I'll finally say: I loved him, and he was always someone I looked forward to seeing again, and now we're left with his tremendous output, snipped tragically short. I just can't even process the magnitude of this loss we're suffering. This final scene, from The Master, slayed me the moment I first witnessed it. But it does so even more now--it feels like a lush epitaph to a consistently revelatory career.
RIP to Philip Seymour Hoffman, an artist of the highest order.
Free winds and no tyranny for you. Freddie. Sailor of the seas. You pay no rent. Free to go where you please. Then go. Go to that landless latitude, and good luck. If you figure a way to live without serving a master--any master--then let the rest of us know, will you? For you’d be the first person in the history of the world...