Monday, February 3, 2014

Philip Seymour Hoffman: Sadness, Anger, and Five Wonderful Roles


Some actors are movie stars, able to bank billion dollar films in a single bound.  Some are character actors, people we see and immediately recognize, though we cannot quite think of their name.  They bring comfort to us in films.  And then there are those actors who exist in between the vast chasm of anonymity and international superstardom, actors who so deftly perform in films both large and small.  This is where you would find Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of the most brilliant, diverse actors of this generation, a man who could make us laugh, cry, wince, and who could captivate us in his roles, regardless of the film surrounding him.  Hoffman's mere presence in a picture would elevate the status of the movie for most.  Whatever his next role was going to be, you can bet I was anticipating the film.  And I wasn't alone.

Sunday morning, Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead in his Greenwich Village apartment, lying on the bathroom floor with a needle still in his arm and remnants of heroin on the floor beside him.  He was 46, and left three young children behind.  This description is curt and, I know, a little too direct for many people.  But I am angry today.  This is not the first artist to leave us too soon and it most certainly will not be the last.  Actors, musicians, artists, authors, all avenues of creative geniuses have either chosen to exit this earth too soon, or have done so mistakenly through poor life choices.  Hoffman had battled drug addiction for what seemed to be the majority of his life, coming forward a few years ago to say he still had issues with heroin.  I understand it is a crippling addiction, and I also understand that so many creative masterminds have created and been inspired while in the throes of a high.  But it does not change the fact that I am angry today.

I had seen Philip Seymour Hoffman act for many years before I even noticed him.  He was George the smarmy rich kid in Scent of a Woman, he was a charming schlub in Twister, and he appeared in films like Nobody's Fool, The Getaway, and Money for Nothing.  I had seen all those films, but I didn't pay attention to Hoffman's role in particular.  His breakout role came in the breakout film of Paul Thomas Anderson's career, Boogie Nights.  As Scotty, the gay, insecure loser of the 70s porn scene depicted in Anderson's fantastic film, Hoffman finally stood out and showed the sort of raw emotional power he could bring to a role.  This performance would allow Hoffman to corner the market on sad losers in films, as he would further show in films like the unsettling Happiness, Owning Mahoney, and Love Liza where he played a sad sack addicted to huffing gas. 

Only Hoffman was not simply a type.  In between playing lovable (and not so lovable) losers, Hoffman would further diversify as an actor.  His role as Brandt in The Big Lebowski was small but hilarious, as was his performance in Almost Famous as Lester Bangs, the editor of Cream magazine.  Hoffman would also star in Paul Thomas Anderson's next two films after Boogie Nights.  In Magnolia, Hoffman delivered such a touching performance as a desperate nurse trying to grant one last wish for his in-home patient, Earl Partridge (Jason Robards).  And in Punch Drunk Love, Hoffman once again channeled his comedic side as a sleazy mattress-store owner who ran a phone sex agency on the side.  I could go on and on about Hoffman's career and the marvelous films he helped create, but surely we all know the power of his artistry.

In 2005 Hoffman won his first and only Oscar, playing Truman Capote in Capote.  While the film is stilted and at times slow moving, Hoffman's performance in undeniable.  And then, wouldn't you know it, Hoffman followed up his Oscar winning artistic, indie performance by playing the baddie in Mission: Impossible III.  His performance is still the best villain of the entire franchise.  Hoffman would continue to flourish over the next seven years before his body was discovered yesterday morning, a sad sack lying lifeless on the bathroom floor.  It is such a shame when these things happen, and what is so maddening and what makes me so angry is that this type of thing could have been avoided.  Hoffman was clearly an intelligent man, a genius in his craft, and the fact that he could not shake such a nasty and dangerous habit points not to stupidity, but to selfishness and a narrow-minded outlook. 

I am mad at Hoffman because he was only 46, and he had three children under the age of eleven, and he had so many more opportunities to create and share his wonderful talents with the world.  And I am sad that we all lost such an amazing artist who should have had another thirty or forty years to spend entertaining us and watching his children grow.  I feel for his family, and I cannot imagine such a tragic end to someone so close to me.  Hoffman redefined acting so many times throughout his illustrious career, and should have had the opportunity to continue defining had he not been so shortsighted.  And what may be more upsetting than anything is the fact that this will certainly not be the last genius to leave this earth too soon.

The following five performances stand out in Hoffman's career, if that is even possible.  Narrowing his great roles down to five seems absurd, and maybe tomorrow this list will change.  But upon hearing of his death, these were the five roles that first sprang to mind...

5) Scotty in Boogie Nights - I touched on this earlier as Hoffman's breakout role.  Scotty is insecure, he wants to fit in, and he is madly in love with Dirk Diggler.  What a sad human being, and what a touching and sometimes uncomfortably amusing performance by Hoffman, who would carry this memorable performance with him into many more roles as the sad sack.

4) Phil Parma in Magnolia - Hoffman owed so much of his early career to Paul Thomas Anderson, who managed to place him in the perfect roles.  Phil Parma is arguably one of maybe two characters (John C. Reilly being the other) in Magnolia whose heart is pure and who does the right thing.  His desperate pleas as he tries to get his dying patient's son on the phone are some of the most emotionally moments in a highly emotional picture.

3) Andy in Before The Devil Knows You're Dead - This is a relatively unseen film, the last of the great Sidney Lumet, full of brilliant performances.  And Hoffman's turn as a drug-addicted financial manager for a Manhattan firm hits a little too close to home on this day.  Perhaps it was his knowledge of this man and his addictions that made his performance so wonderful.

2) Lancaster Dodd in The Master - A mysterious man in a mysterious film, Hoffman's final collaboration with Paul Thomas Anderson is a stunner.  As Lancaster Dodd, the creator of a religion, Hoffman's budding friendship with Joaquin Phoenix's Freddie Quell is the heart of the picture.

1) Truman Capote in Capote - While it is not my favorite film of Hoffman's, his portrayal of Truman Capote is absolutely spot on.