BY ANTHONY LANE
February 17, 2014
Philip Seymour Hoffman arrives at a film screening in 2012. (Tiziana Fabi/AP)
By the start of 1991, “Law & Order” was well into its first season, and its stride. Cop shows have a record of pulling good actors into their gravitational field. I once got a jolt of recognition, and of joy, when, hopping channels and pausing for a dose of “Kojak,” from 1974, I saw James Woods—green in years, but already hard-grained with incipient threat. A similar promise lurked in “The Violence of Summer,” an episode of “Law & Order” that aired on February 5, 1991. Ryan, a young man charged with rape, was led into court, followed by two co-defendants. One made no impression, but the other, though granted less time on camera, drew the eye. Casting a wicked smirk over his shoulder as he came in, he then sat down. He was dough-soft and putty-pink, with hair and eyebrows of muted orange. Viewers had a few seconds, at best, to size him up. If asked, they would have tagged him as one of nature’s punching bags—the porcine type who gets himself bullied, every recess, in a quiet nook of the playground and no longer bothers to complain.
And then he exploded. This little pig went ape. He stared across at Ryan and his finger tapped the table. “We know what you did, O.K.? You hear me, Ryan?” he said. He rose to his feet, and his voice climbed, too, by an octave. He pointed at his own face, and roared, “Look at me!” The scene played out, the law fell into disorder, guns were drawn, the plot hared on, but the instruction had been unambiguously issued, and from that moment, until Sunday, February 2, 2014, we obeyed. Philip Seymour Hoffman told us to look, and we did.
What have we been robbed of, by his death? Not so much a movie star, I think, as somebody who took our dramatic taxonomy—all those lazy, useful terms by which we like to classify and patronize our performers, even the best ones—and threw it away. Leading man, character actor, supporting player: really, who gives a damn? Either you hold an audience, so tight that it feels lashed to the seats, or you don’t. That is why the distinction between Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, at the Academy Awards, grows ever more ludicrous—essential, of course, to the smooth structure of the night, but untrue, in the long run, to the way in which we feed on film, or store it away for lavish future consumption. I sometimes watch “Rear Window” just for the kick of seeing Thelma Ritter (and that’s in a movie that already boasts Grace Kelly and Jimmy Stewart, for heaven’s sake), and, with the same hunger, I often watch “Charlie Wilson’s War” (2007) for the scenes with Philip Seymour Hoffman.
He plays a C.I.A. agent named Gust Avrakotos, and you can feel that missing “o” hanging right off the end of his first name. He has a sad mustache, smoked spectacles, and a gut flopping proudly over his belt. There is a long sequence, in the office of our lounging hero, Representative Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks), that shears close to a Feydeau farce; it comes complete with phone calls, buggings, Amy Adams popping in and out of one door, and Hoffman muscling in and out of another. You can sense the director, Mike Nichols, who knows a thing or two about entrances and exits, relishing every minute and wishing that this stuff could rattle on forever. No less delectable is the onslaught that Gust unleashes in the face of his boss, at Langley, reminding him that he, a Greek-American, has “spent the past three years learning Finnish.” By way of a coda, he takes a wrench and smashes the office window—the earlier smashing of which, incidentally, he had been summoned to apologize for. Then comes the coda to the coda: as Gust marches away in the highest possible dudgeon, he pauses briefly at the desk of a female assistant to grunt, under his breath, “How was I?” Silently, she shows him: thumbs-up.
Now, you can read that moment as a mere curlicue, at the story’s edge; she means that the boss had it coming. But Nichols would scarcely have included the line if he didn’t think that it responded to an urge in his audience. Gust’s rhetoric has brought us halfway to our feet, and we, too, like Siskel and Ebert, would like to signal our appreciation. This involves nothing so vulgar as Hoffman’s breaking the fourth wall, as though it were made of glass, and pleading for our applause. Rather, like many of his peers, not least Brando, he demonstrated that life itself, when lived to the hilt, acquired a flourish of the theatrical. Again, our daily distinction, between the sincere and the insincere, will not suffice. Gust was absolutely genuine as he laid into the C.I.A. chief, but he was also quite aware of the performance that he was putting on, not just for the benefit of his fellow-employees but for the smack of his own satisfaction.
All of us, at some point, play to the gallery of ourselves. That is why we speak of “making a scene,” the phrase telling of both unfeigned outrage and calculated conceit. T. S. Eliot, at his most provoking, suggested that Othello was doing something in this vein in his majestic final speech—“cheering himself up,” in Eliot’s startling words. We are meant to imagine the Moor, in mid-oration, eying an invisible mirror, as though to check his noble frame, just as Tolstoy, in the third chapter of “War and Peace,” asks us to picture Princess Hélène, “glancing now at her beautiful round arm, altered in shape by its pressure on the table,” in the midst of a glittering reception. Hoffman was no prince, and he knew it, but he was wise enough to know that vanity burrows well below the skin.
Hence the first closeup of him in “The Master” (2012), as Lancaster Dodd, the lord of a cult, who sits marooned in light in an otherwise dark room, wearing red, like a cardinal. He is meeting a bum named Freddie, an ex-sailor and potential acolyte, but, to judge by the pose that Dodd holds, with his face half-hidden by one hand, you would think he was waiting for Rodin. Hoffman had the most expressive hands I have ever seen, and he deployed them to full advantage, whether wristily conducting his own bon mots, in “Capote” (2005), as if they were notes in a score, or greeting his new son-in-law, in “The Master,” with a pumping handshake that he is loath to release, like a wrestler’s grip. (One unsurprising fact: Hoffman wrestled in high school.) Do such affectations of power make Dodd a joke? Hoffman gave us plenty to mock in him, and yet, as we saw what the leader meant to the clinging souls around him, and to what extent he believed in his own deceptions, the laughter died in our throats.
How lonely was Hoffman? I refer not to his personal life; I know little about it, or about the ratio of demons to angels with which he had to contend. For that, there can be only pity and sorrow. Instead, I am thinking of the figure that he struck onscreen. (Like many fans, I am now chiding myself for not having witnessed him onstage, especially as Willy Loman.) He was certainly contained, to an alarming degree, and such were the gravelled depths of his voice that he often gave the impression, even in company, of murmuring to himself, as though submerged regrets and grievances were ready to overflow. Some films, I think, afforded him too much leeway in that respect. His fantasist and obscene caller, in “Happiness” (1998), Todd Solondz’s parade of suburban repressives, was horribly convincing, and toadlike in his clamminess, but he bored even his therapist, and it may not be a film that many Hoffmanites, aside from the most devout, would revisit in a hurry. In “Jack Goes Boating” (2010), the one feature he directed, he was inconsolable, and Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York” (2008), likewise, found Hoffman rolling through the action in a private fog of desolation, beyond the reach of other characters, even though his part—as a theatre director who endlessly re-creates his own existence on a gigantic set—seemed like the perfect fit.
Better by far were the instances in which those solitary urges were forced to fight with his taste for the gregarious—when, in short, he barrelled in and bounced off other people. This singular player, whose dramatic eminence, like that of Charles Laughton, was as unmistakable as his physical contours, was happy to be pitched into a standoff, or into a busy ensemble. Hence his sublime political head-to-head, in “The Ides of March,” with Paul Giamatti—two dauntless actors playing two conscience-free campaign managers, neither giving half an inch of ground. The more adept and well armed his co-star, the more Hoffman brought to the fray, whether with Laura Linney, who played his sister in “The Savages” (2007), or, the same year, with Marisa Tomei, in “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.” This was a wonderfully taut account, from the veteran Sidney Lumet, of two brothers—Hoffman and Ethan Hawke—who knock off their parents’ jewelry store. You can guess how well that goes. The atmosphere of bad debts and impeded dreams gives Hoffman plenty to breathe, although it’s unbearable, now, to see him sprawled in a haze of heroin, in his dealer’s apartment, lamenting, “I’m not the sum of my parts. All of my parts don’t add up to one”—he pauses, seeking the right phrase—“one me.” No less wistful, but more heartening, is the next scene, when Tomei, as his faithless, useless, but affectionate wife, chats with him in bed. “I don’t know why you want to keep me,” she tells him, but Hoffman simply opens wide his hands, as if to say, That’s love.
From early on, this was what we treasured in Hoffman: his will to break the habit of solitude—all the more so because we realize how crushing an addiction it can be. There was Scotty, the boom operator he played in “Boogie Nights” (1997), a shy spirit in the fiesta of porno flicks, who made a clumsy pass at Mark Wahlberg in front of a gleaming Corvette, and then, rebuffed, sat in the front seat and wept. As for Lester Bangs, the rock journalist in “Almost Famous” (2000), nothing in Hoffman’s résumé was more wrenching than the careful, low-toned advice that Bangs dispensed over the phone, one evening, to a rookie in the same profession, steering him away from bright lights, and from the lure of loveliness. “Good-looking people, they got no spine; their art never lasts. They get the girls, but we’re smarter,” he said, adding, “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.”
How could that not speak to a million moviegoers? If they embraced Hoffman with ardor, it was in part because he looked so uncool, and so unbeautiful, and because he so obviously hailed from the same tribe as they did, and because there was a kind of beauty, after all, in the flame of feeling that got stoked inside that sweaty heft and pallor. The ordinary body housed a furnace. Besides, who’d be a romantic lead these days, in Hollywood? When did the industry last deliver a fine romance for gorgeous grownups? Yearn as we may for Cary Grant, and for Grant-like opportunities for George Clooney, we dwell in the age of Hoffman.
This is not to deny that, when required, and shorn of his formless yellowing beard, the guy could tidy up nicely. Indeed, there was an instant humor to be had from putting him in demure and even preppy gear. Remember the agonized smile of Brandt, the personal assistant in “The Big Lebowski” (1998), who, in immaculate jacket and tie, was obliged to show the Dude—dressed, as usual, as if for a sack race—around the Lebowski mansion, bursting with pride as he comes to a photograph of Nancy Reagan (“First Lady of the nation”). See how helplessly he stands there, arms flapping at his sides, half butler, half penguin, when confronted with Dudeism in full spate. Then, there was “Patch Adams”—
Whoa! “Patch Adams,” the Robin Williams fiasco from 1998, about the medic who uses clownish capers to help the sick and the dying? The film that was slightly less entertaining than bird flu? Well, yes: there is Hoffman, present and correct as a would-be doctor, his head stuck in his books. And yet, even here, he finds something to work with—turning from his desk, admitting freely that he’s a prick, but asking Patch whether terminally ill patients would prefer “a prick on their side, or some kindergarten teacher who’s going to kiss their ass.” It’s an excellent question. Track back through the Hoffman œuvre, and you discover nothing but the traces of a pro—an actor who forbade himself to look down upon a project, or, if he secretly did, to share that condescension with the viewer. Slumming was not an option. Enjoy, instead, the lustiness with which he joined in tornado-chasing as if it were a barn dance, in “Twister” (1996), or the strangely baffled look in Tom Cruise’s eyes, during “Mission: Impossible III” (2006), as he torments the villain—Hoffman—by hanging him upside down out of an airplane. We catch Hoffman’s expression, with the wind howling by, and the madness that grips it is not merely invincible but, even at this altitude, amused. Hauled back up, he refuses to divulge information, and Cruise seems honestly perplexed as to why he—chiselled, perpetually young, boundlessly popular, and aglow with world-rescuing virtue—should be making no headway with this schlub. It is not, in truth, a matter of hero versus baddie; it is a mapping of one star as it nears the trajectory of another and starts to waver.
All of which proves that genre was not something to frighten Hoffman. Early on, he saw the challenge that is laid down to every darling of the art house: ask not what the mainstream can do for you but what you can bring to the mainstream, and what precious lessons might be trawled along the way. He was twenty-four when he was cast as a smug schoolboy in “Scent of a Woman” (1992)—again, in preppy mode, with his hair neatly brushed as if by a fussy mother. He snitches on the school pranksters, thus triggering the blind rage of Al Pacino, who then stands up for the importance of not being a rat. If Hoffman took the chance to learn from the older actor, and to observe how harangues could be calibrated for the camera, you could hardly blame him. Mind you, his own perorations, in due course, would look rougher and more red-faced than any Pacino rant. Is it the fate of every generation of performer, however commanding, to seem touched with artifice when compared with what comes next? And will Hoffman, someday, seem mannered in his turn?
It’s hard to think so, such were the pains that he took to camouflage the fact that his bag of tricks contained any tricks at all. We may notice Gust, in “Charlie Wilson’s War,” poking his glasses onto the bridge of his nose, hitching up his pants, or planting himself foursquare, hands on hips, in front of the boss’s desk; but we don’t think of these details as being built up and rehearsed by Hoffman, and he doesn’t advertise them. To us, they seem like typical Gust—the basic ingredients of who he is. By contrast, I happen to think that “Capote” was more of a showcase. You can hardly blame Hoffman, and you can see why he won and deserved his Oscar for the part, but the movie itself was too readily encouraged to stand back from him in awe. When Harper Lee (Catherine Keener) scorns Capote, on a train, for paying the porter to praise his books, her censure just slides off him, and the campness of his cackle, at being found out, tells us to carry on loving the naughty imp. Hoffman’s assembly of Trumanhood was dazzling, from the bow tie to the dainty gait and the Looney Tunes contralto, but the dazzle was unrelieved and unrelaxing, like the glare of an arc lamp, and, in the end, some of us, at the risk of sounding ungrateful, found it, as Capote would say, de trop. No, for preference—for Hoffman at his height—I would go for Freddie.
Freddie Miles is a friend of Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law), in “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (1999). Freddie is trouble, and, more to the point, he can sniff trouble when it emanates from other folk. Everyone who admires the film remembers his arrival—one of the great arrivals, indeed, in the history of cinema, as he jumps from an open-top Alfa Romeo in an Italian piazza, bops toward us, kisses Dickie, pours a slug of wine, and throws it down his gullet in a single draught. But try a more legato scene, on Dickie’s yacht, when Law ducks down, belowdecks, to make waves with Gwyneth Paltrow. Freddie is left in charge of the boat. Once more, Hoffman’s technical display, if you look carefully, is off the scale, with Freddie nursing his cocktail, nibbling the olive on its stick, and casually laying a soft hand on the tiller, as if any harsher effort would be an insult to his loucheness. By now, however, he is so invested in the character, and we are so lost in his thrall, that we don’t look carefully. We just bathe in the ease of it, and we snicker along with him as he jeers at Tom Ripley (Matt Damon), up in the bow, who is spying on the lovemakers down in the hold. “Tommy, how’s the peeping?” Freddie cries, with glee unconfined. He repeats the line, with less punch, and then, in a speedy patter, adds, “Tommy Tommy Tommy Tommy Tommy.” I know of no more graceful diminuendo, at least in the comic realm. (King Lear says “Never” five times, before he dies.) It is the sound of a man who is entirely at home in the world, chuckling at another man who is still exploring it, and still amazed at the deliciousness of its sins.
The film was directed by Anthony Minghella, somebody else whose loss we could not at first believe and could ill afford. Minghella saw the fruitfulness of allowing characters, and the actors who embodied them, to take turns in the spotlight—to strut and fret their time upon the stage, and then make way. Who owns the movie is never quite decided, and the one thing more full-blooded than Hoffman’s swagger, in his first appearance, is the élan with which he yields to the blissful air of repertory—a travelling troupe, putting on a show. There is a modesty in that approach: an unexpected trait, in such a force of nature as Philip Seymour Hoffman, and in so immodest a trade as cinema. You stare at the bulk and blaze of him, and you think, That’s gone? Those other lives that he had yet to create and flesh out, in all their intensity—when do we get to see those? Never, never, never, never, never. Just enjoy what we had of him, I guess. As the kid said, “Look at me.”
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