Tuesday, February 11, 2014
Late in his wonderful remembrance of Philip Seymour Hoffman, who passed away on February 2, Tom Carson writes “This one really hurts, people” and yes, it really does. Hoffman was my favorite actor. Along with many others, I first noticed him in Martin Brest’s Scent of a Woman. He sort of plays the villain, though he’s one who exists only on a plot level. It’s not a big role, but I remember him, and what he did with the part, better than I do a lot of that movie. Over the next several years, he would turn up in a variety of independent films, both large and small, playing the mournful widower in Todd Louiso’s Love Liza, for instance, and the extravagantly self-destructive gambler in Richard Kwietniowski’s Owning Mahowny, and it was in the course of this stretch, which ran from the mid-90s to the early 2000s, that Hoffman forged the defining creative relationship of his life and career. In 1996, Hoffman appeared in a small part, just one scene in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Hard Eight. Even though Hoffman was nowhere close to a big name at this point, his semi-breakthrough work in Todd Solondz’s Happiness and as the officiously good-natured Brant in the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski still on the horizon, this somehow feels like a star cameo, his performance as a cocky and subtly naïve gambler who taunts Philip Baker Hall’s old-school big-timer so energetic and believably ridiculous that it would have been difficult, at that time, not to realize there would be much more from Hoffman to come. A guy doesn’t walk on screen for a few minutes, blow it up like that, and then just disappear.
I'm jumbling the timeline a little bit here, but the importance of Hard Eight cannot be underestimated. It was the first of five movies Hoffman would make with Anderson, comprising one of the great, if painfully short, actor/director collaborations of modern times. Great actors can have a narrow range, or they can have sprawling range – Hoffman had an exhilaratingly sprawling range that is on almost complete display even if you focus only on the five films he made with Anderson. After Hard Eight, you get Boogie Nights, in which Hoffman plays Scotty J, the excruciatingly bewildered boom mic operator, as free of the cockiness of his character in Hard Eight as it is conceivably possible to be, who is in love with porn star Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg). Another small role, Hoffman's Scotty J is nevertheless very much a part of Boogie Night's great splash of color, specificity, and what you might have to describe as heartbreaking nonsense. How Scotty J fell into the world the porn world, I couldn't tell you, but Anderson and Hoffman knew enough about him to, for instance, at the end of Diggler's big poolside blow-out with Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), linger on him, on Scotty, standing back frightened and nervous because something was terribly wrong with the man he loved. Hoffman stands there, one hand holding his other arm at the elbow, helpless, and somehow the whole film is illustrated by Scotty's ill-fitting tank-top and slack mouth.
And Hoffman has to juggle that whole crazy movie. It’s a tough thing, that one, because the absurdity of houses that are perpetually on fire and diaries left behind by a four-year-old daughter that nevertheless, somehow, continue to chronicle her growth into adulthood has to knock down our defenses so that the damn thing can actually be moving, and if Hoffman isn’t the one to knock them down, who’s going to do it? Caden is a man grinded into dust, or near enough, by the nonsensical tortures of his own stupid brain, and Hoffman lets that pain, grief, and frustration pour out. Even when he’s happy, as he briefly is sometimes, such as in a scene where he’s flirting, badly but successfully, with Samantha Morton’s character, Hoffman plays it in a way that indicates clearly Caden’s belief that this can’t be real, this is a trick, I’ll go along with it though because what else do I have? And see, too, Hoffman’s performance as Allen, the obscene phone caller in Todd Solondz’s Happiness, another one of Hoffman’s big breakthroughs, and another character who wears his slack-jaw the way others might wear a certain kind of hat – thoughtlessly, habitually, but as a clear indicator of personality. Like Caden, Allen is angry, a victim of his own mind; unlike Caden, he’s possibly dangerous, in any case creepy, and Hoffman is almost shocking in the way he portrays how terrifying a lonely person can be. Hoffman does the grubbiest things in Happiness as if he was making toast, these things have taken on that level of the ordinary in his life, and here his mouth hangs open because that’s how he breathes – Hoffman lets his face droop here as if from underuse, and this atrophy both thickens and softens his speech. Caden can speak clearly, but at least Allen always has a goal in sight, however temporary.
But the performance I think should probably close on is the one he gave in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, from 2007. It’s an imperfect film, but a good one, and a final triumph for director Sidney Lumet, who would die four years later at the forgivable age of 86. In the film, Hoffman plays Andy, a seemingly secure and well-to-do businessman, but who is in fact a kind of panicky Satan, one who commits, and convinces others to commit, terrible deeds, and existing behind a mask of confidence and smarm to hide the fact that his life is in tatters. Though perhaps not technically the film’s lead, Hoffman is, nevertheless, actually the lead, since Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is about how Andy destroys his whole world. I bring up this film not to draw unseemly parallels, but it’s true, and Hoffman doubtlessly knew it was true when he made it, that this is a drug movie that only pretends that drugs function here as a plot mechanism. But no, underneath everything, it’s almost all drugs, and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, never a “fun” picture, has suddenly become much more uncomfortable to watch than it was before.
This is the sort of thing Hoffman did, is what I’m getting at. He was a very specific performer who could do seemingly anything, whose habits as an actor could mean something new every time. And now – and this has been surprisingly easy to forget as I write about his work – he’s gone. And again, this one hurts. Always, for somebody, when a favorite artist dies, it will feel like more of a personal blow than it does for other people, and I suppose that’s the case for me and the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, but I’m wary of making too much out of that. I didn’t actually know him, I never actually met him, and so on. The connection a person can feel with an artist is often nebulous and hard to define. He was a character actor who looked like a character actor, and this can sometimes be enough to make it personal. This isn’t, in any case, about me, even though funerals are about the bereaved, not the deceased. And on top of that, this isn’t a funeral. Yes, he was too young, and yes, the circumstances of his death are too goddamn sad. If I had or had ever had any ambitions to be an actor this would probably be easier to explain. But perhaps it’s not so complicated. I love movies, I love great acting, and when Hoffman came along, as sometimes happens, the question had to be asked “Who is this guy? Where did he come from?” He was a great actor. That’s enough of a loss. He was my favorite.