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 that slack-mouthed look...listen, you start writing about someone like Hoffman, someone who's now gone, and what they could do with so little, things that perhaps you were only vaguely conscious of before, the talent begins to clarify, at least somewhat, and maybe you begin to digress a bit. But that slack-mouthed look was, I can now see, something of a Hoffman trademark -- an impersonation of him might begin there. But what's remarkable is how many different things Hoffman could do with that same dead-muscle expression. In Boogie Nights, he used it to express a nervous kind of blankness. In his next film with Anderson, 1999's Magnolia, we get it again, but it means something else. In the film Hoffman plays Phil Parma, a nurse caring for a dying TV producer named Early Partridge (Jason Robards). As the film goes along, its dozen or so characters criss-crossing through each other's lives, Parma learns that Partridge's son is Frank Mackey (Tom Cruise), a misogynistic guru of seduce and destroy dating techniques whose commercials are all over television. So Anderson shows us Parma watching TV, looking for any way at all to contact Frank,, and Hoffman is there, Parma is there, slack-mouthed again. But now it's because, well, he's flipping through the channels, and how bright do you look when you're doing that. At the same time, though, he's focused. He's on a mission. This isn't the hanging jaw of a dullard, but of a man who has something important to do, a limited time to do it, and flipping channels is step one.
If I may continue to connect the question of range with this slackness of Hoffman's by expanding outward into other films -- and I'll get back to Anderson -- let me begin by saying that in my experience with Hoffman's work you could very creditably argue that he never played the same part twice. Even if you said, well, the hopelessness of Wilson in Love Liza isn't, in some fundamental way, terribly far removed from Caden in Synecdoche, New York, it's impossible not to acknowledge that Hoffman was able to play not just the character, but the whole world of the film in which that character lives. Therefore his work in the environment of Love Liza's modest realism can't resemble the morbid phantasmagoric sweep of Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York, because Hoffman plays that morbid phantasmagoric sweep as well. And in Synecdoche, New York, to get back to business, Hoffman turns the slack-mouthed look into what's almost a life choice for Caden Cotard, the death-obsessed ("Harold Pinter died. No wait, he won the Nobel Prize"), frustrated, self-hating playwright he plays over a span of about 40 years, but also maybe just several months. Hoffman shambles through the film open-mouthed, in this instance because, perhaps, his brain is too busy telling him that everything is going to go wrong and everything is going to kill him to remember to always communicate even basic muscle control.

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.
So where do I stop, exactly? Hoffman would make two more films with Anderson. In 2002 Hoffman gave a very funny turn as the villain in Punch-Drunk Love, and finally, in 2012, he would appear in The Master, a film I think is as much Hoffman’s (and Joaquin Phoenix’s) masterpiece as Anderson’s, and possibly Hoffman’s last great performance (I would be happy and not at all shocked to hear from those who have seen Anton Corbijn’s upcoming A Most Wanted Man, in which Hoffman stars, that I’m wrong about that). With The Master Hoffman and Anderson’s creative relationship reaches its summit. Hoffman plays Lancaster Dodd, a sort of L. Ron Hubbard figure, who is therefore not one of the ordinary man into which category so many of Hoffman’s characters have been slotted, from Happiness’s Allen to Magnolia’s Phil. Dodd is big, he’s booming, his charisma is outsized, his intelligence seems, if anything, larger, he’s not shy or bad with people. Hoffman easily (maybe not, but it seems that way) sheds his history of playing guys who, whatever sort they might be and however crazy the film in which they appear, one might easily meet at any time, and he fills the screen as a Great Man, or rather a “Great Man.” Yet throughout Hoffman plays the underlying cowardly and uncertain nerves that when struck bring outbursts of anger which sometimes seem tinged with a kind of hidden, pulsing illness (“Pigfuck!”). It’s astonishing work. And then there’s Capote, the film for which Hoffman won an Oscar, and Doubt, a film I think is often unfairly dismissed as Oscar-bait, and in which Hoffman is never less than riveting and subtly mysterious.

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.
And so what? How long will that matter to any of us? Not long, not for me, anyway. What springs to mind even now, and always before, when I’ve thought of the film is a scene between Hoffman and Marisa Tomei, who plays his wife, as they drive home from his dad’s (Albert Finney) house. The father-son thing in this movie is pretty fraught, and for all sorts of reasons Andy breaks down. The dialogue here does Hoffman no favors, but Hoffman gives it a big helping hand anyway, and as the breakdown turns into a mania of grief and frustration, he does something, and it doesn’t last long, but something that anybody who has ever really broken down, for whatever reason, whatever kind of grief has overwhelmed them, will recognize. It’s hard to describe precisely, but essentially what happens is the actor goes away, Hoffman’s gone for a few seconds, and Andy loses control. His voice, his hands, they become untethered, just for a bit. This is the kind of acting that makes you want to point and say “Yes, that’s right.”

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.


Craig said...

Very nice write-up, Bill. For me, the key film in his body of work (or one of them) may have been The Talented Mr. Ripley, only one of several key films he was in right after Boogie Nights, but the first Hoffman film I saw in a theater after Boogie Nights. So there's that. The movie itself is no big deal (certainly not as much as it thinks it is), but Hoffman's confrontation scene with Damon is electric, and his character so diametrically opposed to Scotty J I remember saying to myself, "I can't believe that's the same guy."

Since not many have mentioned it, I'm also fond of his work in State and Main.

bill r. said...

Thanks, Craig. You're not the only person since he died who has brought up THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY as being a favorite. I didn't have time to rewatch that one, but I know that the boat scene ("How's the peeping, Tommy?") and the showdown are pretty terrific.

I rewatched STATE AND MAIN after hearing about his death. I like it a great deal, and him in it, and it seemed like the least fraught choice at the time.

Kelly said...

Beautiful piece Bill, thank you. He was indeed one of the very best.

seymourblogger said...

A beautiful beautiful tribute. I also like reading his death through Russell Brand. Reality is the problem, heroin is only the solution - short term. Hoffman knew reality and he knew the Zizekian REAL. Too much.