Monday, February 3, 2014

Philip Seymour Hoffman (1967-2014)

I can remember the exact moment that I came to recognize Philip Seymour Hoffman as an actor. It was some time in 2001 and I was home from school with some kind of sickness - or maybe it was just the summertime, that detail of the story isn't what's important. What IS important is that we had the Encore movie channel in our home as part of our basic cable set-up. This was a channel that showed movies, unedited and without commercial interruption, all day, yet for some reason wasn't considered premium cable and I could watch it in my room whenever I wanted. And on this specific day, when I was home sick from school, they played a 2000 film written and directed by David Mamet called State and Main. The film is charming in that Mamet kind of way, loaded with harsh, witty dialogue and chock filled with film stars (including William H. Macy, Alec Baldwin, Sarah Jessica Parker and Julia Stiles). It was a Hollywood satire about a movie shoot that comes and disrupts a quiet, humble lighthouse town. The film is filled with characters that both represent Hollywood corruption and others that showcase small town morality. Yet, there was one character named Joseph Turner White, arguably the story's moral center. He's a playwright who wrote the play the film is based on and is currently writing the screenplay for the adaptation. He's coming from the purity of theatre and slowing becoming corrupted by the image bias of cinema. Joseph Turner White was played by Philip Seymour Hoffman with stunning grace and subtlety, and keeps the loopy State and Main in check, making this occasionally forgettable film one of Mamet's more hidden gems. It was hard for me not to recognize his name after that.

What happened soon afterward is that I realized that I had actually seen Hoffman several times before and hadn't noticed. He was in Twister? And Scent of a Woman? He was the guy playing Lester Bangs in Almost Famous? This anecdote seems to be similar to many others' experience with Hoffman. He was a pretty legendary "that guy" for two decades, with average moviegoers remembering his bloated, shouting basketball scenes in Along Came Polly more than his haunting work in Synecdoche, New York or The Master. Hoffman was never a movie star, but he was very capable of outshining most of film's greatest stars. Along Came Polly would probably be a largely forgotten romantic comedy starring Ben Stiller and Jennifer Aniston if it weren't for Hoffman's deceptively tragic, boisterously funny supporting performance as Stiller's disgusting, egotistical best friend. And this was the kind of magic he brought to all his roles, most of which didn't come equipped with the levity that Polly did. Hollywood never quite knew what to do with him, often utilizing him as the loud, hefty sidekick, as in Charlie Wilson's War and The Ides of March - the former earned him one of his four Academy Award nominations. It's telling that three of his four nominations came in the supporting category. Even in 2012's The Master, the Oscars didn't see him as the lead, even though he very obviously shares that burden with Joaquin Phoenix. The idea of him being a leading man never really sit well with anybody except those who watched all of his movies.

His one Oscar win came for Capote where he played Truman Capote during the arduous process of writing his masterpiece In Cold Blood. It was incredible work and a worthy win (though it should be said that that year also had Heath Ledger's performance in Brokeback Mountain which would have also been very worthy), yet celebrity mimicry only touches the surface of Hoffman's power. It's the kind of performance that's easy to notice because of the effeminate voice and transformative hair & make-up, but all of the subtleties of his work are there as well. He knew how to use the wacky voice and move past just simple impression, finding the tragedy behind the physically small, yet larger-than-life personailty. This was the image of a literary giant's disintegration, and the film's director, Bennett Miller, knew that the best way to accomplish this was to put full faith in Hoffman and his ability. When he won the Golden Globe just a few weeks before winning the Oscar, he stated that he knew that this was the greatest role that he'd gotten in his career. I always remembered that. Hoffman knew that with film acting it's getting the role that's half the battle. Hoffman knew how to maximize his choices better than most actors of his generation. Like most phenomenal acting talents, it seems amazing that he was able to factor himself in with so many great films and filmmakers. Magnolia, The Talented Mr. Ripley and The Savages, all incredibly different films with amazing voices, and Hoffman's performances in those films are so strikingly different and brilliant that it's hard to believe they all come from the same performer.

Hoffman's death is incredibly tragic, considering his age, talent and circumstance. The fact that he was apparently a heroin addict brings unseen moral complications to his story, and the fact that this addiction is what killed him feels especially unfair. We don't know the details of his life, though it seems shocking that he was only 46 years old. In public circles, his greasy hair often looked matted and grey as opposed to just reddish blonde (which was its actual color), and his gruffy beard always gave him a Santa Claus-ian look like he was well over 50. Hoffman never looked very healthy, and as his career blossomed and he became a larger figure within Hollywood, his appearance actually got worse. The success of him and Paul Giamatti as actors seemed to signal a shift in what a successful actor had to be like (or rather, had to look like). Hoffman's orb-like gut and jowly scowl was very much a part of his screen presence, and he knew how to wield his unorthodox body to his advantage. A lot of horror was kicked up over the graphic love scenes between him and Marisa Tomei in Sidney Lumet's Before The Devil Knows You're Dead, but Hoffman knew the power that image of his naked body would produce. Devil Knows You're Dead was one of Hoffman's loudest, more carnal performances and was a terrific representation of what he could do when the shackles were really taken off. It's not a great film, and it's far from Hoffman's best work, but it's a wonderful snapshot of one of the many characters Hoffman could easily slide himself into.

While Hoffman was never a great star, it would've been nearly impossible to be a movie lover born in the 80's or early 90's and not know who he was, even if you weren't a fan. He was just in too many important movies, working with too many influential directors. For me, his career feels fused to the work of Paul Thomas Anderson (my favorite filmmaker), of which he's appeared in all but one of his films - There Will Be Blood being the only film in which he does not appear. Anderson has coaxed some tremendous work from a number of great actors, but Hoffman seemed the most dedicated of his crew. It was never a relationship on par with Scorsese/DeNiro or Burton/Depp, because Anderson never made Hoffman a true focus in any of his films, but Hoffman was able to move in and out of PTA's numerous films in a variety of different characters. His heartbreaking portrayal of the simple sound man Scotty J. in Boogie Nights, or the blustering con man/mattress salesman in Punch-Drunk Love. His tender hospice nurse, Phil Parma, lost within the labyrinth of characters that is Magnolia stands out brilliantly for its full heart in a movie filled with selfish people. Their collaboration reached its crescendo with 2012's The Master, with its two-headed lead performance from Hoffman and Phoenix. Hoffman's quietly sinister performance perfectly foils Phoenix's brash sadism within the movie. The Master may be the greatest acting Hoffman has ever done, and the fact that Hoffman and Anderson will never collaborate again makes me immensely sad.

Hoffman had the ability of Daniel Day-Lewis, and if you consider the image bias implicit not only in the movies but in society as a whole, the mountains that Hoffman had to climb were much, much higher. Hoffman never seemed satisfied with one particular kind of role, he could ham it up in melodrama (as he did in his roles in Cold Mountain), he could achieve true comedy (like in Polly and The Invention of Lying) but all of his performance seemed invested in darkness, and his saddest performances always felt incredibly lived in. His closest doppleganger is Dustin Hoffman, another chameleonic performer who adored changing it up with each performance. Like, P.S. Hoffman, Dustin did not let his unorthodox appearance effect his rise toward movie stardom. P.S. Hoffman was never as famous as Dustin Hoffman, but like Dustin he embodied such an astonishingly varied number of different characters. And also like Dustin, it never seemed like Philip Seymour Hoffman was ever bad in anything. Performances like his in Flawless or The 25th Hour would be touchstones on many actors' filmographies, but for Hoffman they are just one of many, a commonplace representation of his roles. The Big Lebowski, Happiness, Love Liza. The list goes on and on. Based on pure quantity, his career is an impressive achievement, but to deliver the level of work to each role that he did seems unthinkable. When people die, it's easy to overreact with praise, but with Philip Seymour Hoffman, it almost feels like he's being properly appreciated for the first time. He was amongst the greatest actors of his generation, if not THE greatest. My list of personal favorites is too long to mention, but his work in The Master, MagnoliaSynecdoche, New York and The Savages will always hold special places for me. Not since Heath Ledger has the death of an actor felt so tragic, and yet, at least with Hoffman's filmography there is so much more, an incredibly vast collection at the time of death, and we will always have all these incredible films - and incredible performances - to look back on.

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