Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Philip Seymour Hoffman (1967-2014)

Almost every day since Philip Seymour Hoffman's death, over two weeks ago, I have considered writing about him here but I always managed to fall short of actually doing it. At this point almost everyone has weighed in, offering insights into his impressive body of work and opinions about his tragic, gone-before-his-time demise and I can't possibly hope to contribute anything new. But since I love movies and Hoffman was one of our very finest actors (and a personal favorite of mine) I feel like his passing cannot be overlooked on this blog. I only hope that I can convey, in some small, imperfect way, the impact that he had on me as a moviegoer.

The first Philip Seymour Hoffman performance I ever saw was in Scent of a Woman. He had a small but crucial role as a wealthy prep-school hooligan and his arrogance and sense of entitlement practically radiated off the screen. Every time I watched that movie my reaction to his George Willis, Jr. was one of visceral loathing. He would portray an older version of a similar character years later, as Freddie Miles in The Talented Mr. Ripley, another spoiled and lazy child of privilege. The fact that Freddie was, to a degree, a heroic character did little to diffuse the fact that he was generally bombastic and unpleasant. That didn't stop Hoffman from being a truly compelling and memorable presence in both films, despite the fact that his screen time was so limited.

It would've been impressive enough if Hoffman had made a career out of being a scene-stealing jerk but the thing that made his body of work so incredible was its astonishing versatility. For every George Willis, Jr. and Freddie Miles in his repertoire there's also a Scotty J. and a Phil Parma. Hoffman could play creeps and bullies to perfection but he was equally adept at playing emotionally fragile and empathetic characters. His turn as the lovesick, tragically awkward Scotty J. in Boogie Nights is so raw and sad and pitiful that it's painful to watch. I'm not sure I've ever been more embarrassed for a character in a movie. It would be easier to loathe him because he's so pathetic but Hoffman forces us to connect with the character's loneliness and vulnerability in such a palpable way that it's impossible to look away. I not only found myself sympathizing with Scotty J. but identifying with him as well, despite how uncomfortable that made me feel. As Phil Parma, the hospice nurse in Magnolia, Hoffman is the self-sacrificing, compassionate center to a movie that is largely populated by incredibly angry, selfish and damaged people. His patience and kindness in the face of so much bitterness and hostility is truly heroic.

I don't know how I could ever choose a favorite Philip Seymour Hoffman performance but I certainly count his Oscar winning portrayal of Truman Capote among my favorites. In the hands of a less capable actor the titular Capote role could've easily come across as little more than parody. Capote's distinctive voice and mannerisms are immediately recognizable and could readily lend themselves to mindless mimicry. But not with Hoffman at the helm. It's true that he captures the voice and and the other superficial flourishes perfectly but he also conveys Capote's rich, complex interior struggle. The writer's brilliance, his arrogance, his selfishness, as well as his sensitivity and vulnerability are all on full display. It's a performance that encapsulates Hoffman's amazing range and versatility; his Truman Capote is multi-faceted, engrossing and fully alive. If there is one commonality amongst all his roles it's that Hoffman always created characters that felt fully alive.

I'm barely scratching at the surface of Hoffman's film career. I can't think of a single performance of his that I have seen that was forgettable. They are all memorable, for one reason or another. Even when he had minimal screen time he always made an impression. Every time Hoffman showed up in a movie I got excited because I knew he was going to give us something worth seeing. He always dug deep, forcing us to connect with his characters and feel what they were feeling even if what they were feeling was ugly or unpleasant or painful. As an artist he was truly fearless. And he never disappointed. I am so very sorry that I never had a chance to see him on the stage and I know my knowledge of his career will forever be incomplete because of that. And there are many Hoffman film performances that I have yet to see. I intend to get around to all of them, eventually, but I think I'll take my time. I like that I still have new work to look forward to from him and I dread the day when that will no longer be the case.