Monday, February 3, 2014

Philip Seymour Hoffman: An Appreciation

I don’t mean to sound crass, but celebrity deaths do not often affect me greatly. Even when some of my cinematic heroes – like Robert Altman or Ingmar Bergman – have died, I know that they lived long lives, and left behind an incredible cinematic legacy. Roger Ebert’s death affected me more than any other celebrity death ever did – because he was such a part of my daily life, and having that voice gone was devastating to me for weeks on end. But the news of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death left me shocked and saddened. I’m not going to talk about Hoffman as a man – I didn’t know him and am not going to pretend like I did. I’m also not going to lecture or moralize about drug addiction and abuse – it’s not my place to do. His friends and family should be left to grieve in privacy. But as an actor, Hoffman leaves a void in American cinema that cannot be filled. He was, arguably, the greatest actor of his generation. He didn’t look like a movie star but his immense range and talent made him one anyway. So I want to take a few moments to look back an incredible career that was sadly cut short.

I think I first noticed Hoffman in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights in 1997 playing Scotty – a sad, lonely, pathetic sound man who hung out on the fringes of the porn scene, and idolized Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler so much he tried to dress like him. Everyone seemed to take pity on Scotty, who was uncomfortable in his own skin, and didn’t know how to behave. In a movie filled with great performances by movies stars like Wahlberg, Burt Reynolds, Julianne Moore and more well-known characters actors, Hoffman still managed to stand out – a remarkable achievement given the size of his role.

It’s unlikely that Todd Solondz saw Boogie Nights before casting Hoffman in Happiness the following year  but once again, Hoffman played a socially awkward, pathetic man. His character in Happiness is even more far gone than Scotty in Boogie Nights – a pathetic man beaten down by life; whose only joy in his the sexually explicit crank phone calls he makes. When he comes face-to-face with a real woman – like Lara Flynn Boyle, who wants him to do something bad to her so she’ll have more “life experience” or Camryn Manheim – who admits to doing something awful – he can barely bring himself to utter a word. His performance there is a master class in self-loathing. That same year, he delivered a wonderful supporting turn in the Coen Brothers The Big Lebowski – playing David Huddleson’s ever cheerful underling Brandt in a very funny, yet brief, comedic turn. I always wanted Hoffman to team up with the Coen’s again – he seemed like a perfect actor for them – and sadly, it will never happen.

1999 was probably his “break-out” year – winning some awards for a trio of very different supporting turns. In Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley – he plays perhaps the smartest character in the film other than Ripley himself – the only one who catches onto what Ripley is doing, and he pays for with his life, after a brilliant cat-and-mouse dialogue scene between him and Matt Damon. In Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia he was a tremendously sympathetic character – a male nurse, trying to reconnect a dying man (Jason Robards) with his estranged son (Tom Cruise). Even in a not very good film like Joel Schumacher’s Flawless – Hoffman was brilliant. He plays a drag queen that Robert DeNiro comes to for voice lessons after a stroke, and although the film is rather blah – Hoffman’s brilliant performance makes it worth seeing.

2000 saw him play a pair of writers – for David Mamet in the excellent ensemble Hollywood comedy State and Main, playing a screenwriter who eventually realizes that no one wants him around. And for Cameron Crowe in Almost Famous – one of Hoffman’s very best roles, where he plays the legendary rock critic Lester Bangs, who delivers a great monologue to the young star about the importance of being “uncool” which is dead on, and probably inspired many a writer since.

More supporting turns followed in 2002 and 2003 – brilliantly played the demented mattress man and phone sex operating for Anderson in Punch-Drunk Love, going over the top wonderfully. Then he brilliantly underplayed his role in Spike Lee’s 25th Hour – it wasn’t until my third or fourth time through that film that I realized just how brilliant Hoffman is in it – a sad soul in the midst of the madness around him. Teaming up with Anthony Minghella again, he delivered a small, yet memorable performance as a somewhat perverse preacher in Cold Mountain. He also had his first two true leads – first in the little seen indie Love Liza, which is not a terrific movie by any means, but features a fine performance by Hoffman as a sad sack trying to get over the suicide of his wife.  Then came Owning Mahowny, which is a wonderful movie that sadly very few saw – as Hoffman plays a gambling addict with access to a lot of other’s people money, and no power to stop himself from losing it all. It’s one of the great unsung performances of Hoffman’s career.

2005 finally brought Hoffman his first Oscar nomination – and his first (and only) Oscar win for Bennett Miller’s Capote. I have always had a few problems with the film itself – I think it’s WAY too hard on Capote compared to the murderers he writes about, but Hoffman’s performance is utterly brilliant. He was larger, in every way, than Capote, and yet he somehow makes himself smaller for the role – and he nails the well-known voice and mannerisms of the iconic writer perfectly. It’s the type of performance that seems like custom built Oscar bait – and yet Hoffman is far greater than most people who won for performances like this, because his performance is far more than just an impression.

You could accuse Hoffman of selling out the following year, taking the villain role in Mission: Impossible III – yet he did it so well, there’s no real reason to complain. Besides, in 2007 he was back to his old habits in two wonderful lead performances – first in Tamara Jenkins under seen The Savages as one half of a brother-sister duo caring for their ailing father, and then brilliantly imploding as an accountant who makes one mistake after another in Sidney Lumet’s underrated swan song Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. That same year, even though everyone agrees Mike Nichols’ Charlie Wilson’s War turned out to be a fairly major disappointment, everyone also agreed that Hoffman earned his second Oscar nomination as Gust Avrakotos, in a brilliantly broad performance. His third Oscar nomination came the following year – for his wonderfully creepy performance in Doubt – as a priest who may, or may not, be a pedophile. Again, some thought the movie was only a hollow echo of the stage version – but very few could find much to criticize in Hoffman’s work.

It also brought what, to me, is the greatest performance of Hoffman’s career in Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York. The film seems to me, increasingly, to be one of the greatest American films of the 2000s – a portrait of an artist who becomes so entranced in his own life, and staging an never ending play about it, in which he tries to mold the world to what he wants it to be, and always fails, so he starts again and again. The film is about life itself – and at the center of it is Hoffman, delivering a staggering performance. I walked out of that movie stunned – and I’m stunned each and every time I return to it. If you haven’t seen it – and I know a lot have not – you need to do so. Now.

In 2010, Hoffman made his one and only film as a director – Jack Goes Boating – while it is not a great film, it showed tremendous promise for him as a director – and when I heard he was following it up recently, I was looking forward to the result (which sadly we will never see). It also benefits from fine performances all around – not least of which by Hoffman himself.

More films followed in 2011 – he was probably the best one in George Clooney’s The Ides of March ­– as a political operator who has at least some principals, so of course he’s screwed. He wasn’t given much to do, but did it well in Bennett Miller’s Moneyball. Then he delivered another towering performance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. As Lancaster Dodd, the head of scientology like cult, Hoffman was calmly charismatic – only a few times letting his id take over (“Pig fuck!”) but mainly appearing to be in complete and utter control at every moment. His processing scenes with Joaquin Phoenix are brilliant – a study, if nothing else, on how two vastly different actors can still work utterly perfect together. There are a few moments – rarely commented on – between him and Amy Adams, which shows just who is control and how, and Hoffman plays them understatedly perfect as well.

There are few more performances in Hoffman’s career left to see. He was great as could be expected in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (greater in fact, as he leaves more of an impression, by doing less, than his more flamboyant adult co-stars who seem to be trying a lot harder than he was) – so there is two more Hunger Games films to look forward to. He got good reviews at Sundance for his work A Most Wanted Man for director Anton Coribjn. Word was less kind one God’s Pocket by John Slattery – but just try and keep me away now.

Hoffman’s death fills me with sadness because of his immense talent. Look back over that list of films I mentioned – it’s almost every movie he made, because I think he was great in pretty much all of them. Even in some of the films I didn’t mention because I don’t like them very much – like Along Came Polly or Red Dragon you cannot really find much wrong with what Hoffman did, even if the movies themselves weren’t very good. Hoffman was, to be, the greatest actor of his generation, and the greatest actor working in movies right now. His presence in a movie meant that if nothing else, you would at least see one interesting performance in it. His family and friends can mourn the man they knew and lost – their loss is far greater than mine as merely a fan of his work. And yet, his death still hit me hard. It hit me hard because of all the great work he has done in his career – and all the great work that we will never get a chance to see now. One of the greatest actors of all time left us far too soon – and he will be missed.

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