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The death of a Master: Philip Seymour Hoffman

On the passing of one of the finest actors of our time, Abhimanyu Das reflects on Hoffman’s finest and most moving performances.

ABHIMANYU DAS  8th Feb 2014

A still from Capote

hen the news broke on Twitter last Sunday that Philip Seymour Hoffman had died, age 46, the grief expressed in my cinephile circle (and beyond) was pitched at a level I'd never quite encountered in this context. It was angrier, more raw than the usual chorus of 'RIPs', possessing an intensity usually reserved for a death in the family rather than the passing of a stranger. I felt it too, in the pit of my stomach like a deep personal loss. On one level, it seems absurd but, at another, it's the most natural thing in the world. Such is our relationship with the actors who articulate our victories and losses, weaving them into the tapestry of shared human experience, providing us with the mirrors off which we bounce our own identities, for better or for worse. And Hoffman was just that — a bona fide, down-and-dirty, capital 'a' Actor in a world of shiny movie stars.

One explanation for the heartbreak is, simply, that he's irreplaceable. I'm not just throwing that word around the way one does when a celebrity dies. In his New York Times obituary, A.O. Scott said: "We did not lose just a very good actor. We may have lost the best one we had." Extreme as that sounds, it feels accurate. In his two decades as an actor, Hoffman demonstrated prodigious range and preternatural technique but what really set him apart was a unique willingness to take risks, to vividly evoke the inner life of the most pathetic or loathsome of characters. Few famous actors I can think of would have delved into roles like Hoffman's in Todd Solondz's Happiness — that of a desperate, lonely pervert spending his days making sexually abusive phone calls — or in Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights — a self-loathing sound guy hopelessly in love with Mark Wahlberg's leading man — and invested them with such tragic dimension, such soul.

Soul was, in fact, his métier. He wasn't classically handsome — the sexiest thing about him was probably that distinctive just-got-out-of-bed, scotch-and-cigarettes voice. Instead, his less-than-glamorous approach was to lay his characters bare, throwing them up onscreen like deer in the headlights, naked and vulnerable. Every performance was revealing in the most essential sense — teasing out the driving impulses behind complicated individuals; connecting to their bitterness, their frustration, their shame. And it was almost always thus – he rarely played anyone well-adjusted. But even when he played slimeballs, it was with sustained empathy. Many of his characters — the gambling-addicted bank employee in Owning Mahowny, the thieving businessman in Sidney Lumet's heist pic Before the Devil Knows You're Dead - could have come across like two-dimensional losers but Hoffman plumbed the dark places from whence their failings sprang, explaining if not excusing them.

It wasn't all off-putting losers though. Anyone who saw him as Brandt, the buttoned-down toady in the Coens' slacker noir The Big Lebowski—– all clipped condescension and self-consciously measured movements — knows he could be hysterically funny. Charisma wasn't in short supply either; that voice could switch from self-doubt to swaggering confidence from one film to the next, creating terrifying franchise-elevating villains (Davian in Mission Impossible 3) as well as indelible supporting characters like smirking, decadent snob Freddie Miles in The Talented Mr Ripley. Nor had all the practice with flawed characters eclipsed the ability to play decent ones. His undoubted real-life sensitivity found tender expression in, among others, his turn as Phil Parma, loyal caregiver to a cancer-stricken retiree in Anderson's Magnolia, and as the voice of lonely agoraphobe Max in the heartrending animated feature Mary and Max.

or years, Hoffman was at his best working as a key element in an ensemble. He was a consummate character actor, what with his unassuming appearance — florid, bristly, portly — and such perfect control of his craft that you never noticed he was acting. But you'd notice if he were missing. He was the quiet note that held together the actorly symphony, unobtrusive but without whom it'd all collapse. Consider Spike Lee's post 9/11 period piece 25th Hour in which Hoffman pouts quietly as the shy friend in a group of extroverts. Even as he spends long stretches wordlessly occupying a corner of the screen, he builds up a crisis of conscience that, in many ways, mirrors and amplifies that of Ed Norton's protagonist. It's an indispensable bit of performative support, the likes of which he bestows upon the casts of many films, from State and Main to Red Dragon. Subsequently, the career upswing prompted by his flamboyant Oscar-winning turn as Truman Capote signaled a new default position: first billing. A beloved staple of the Broadway scene, he had – in his Willy Loman, his Jamie Tyrone – much practice fronting productions, augmenting the rigorous control of his supporting parts with the theatricality that crept into these star-making roles of his last years. There isn't a missed step in the lot but two deserve special mention as some of the best acting I've seen in the last decade.

Hoffman as Lester Bangs in Almost Famous

In The Master, he took a monstrous megalomaniac in cult leader Lancaster Dodd and somehow made him human. When he asks of his underling Freddie, "If you figure out a way to live without serving a master...let the rest of us know, will you?" he reveals a man as lost as his acolytes, adrift on a sea of corrupted ideals and imploding beliefs. Hoffman carves out the cracks in Dodd's façade of assurance, molding a character whose inner torment and resulting substance abuse reveals — in hindsight — distressing parallels. But the Hoffman performance I admire most is his role in Charlie Kaufman's crushing existential tract Synecdoche, New York. He plays Caden Cotard, a depressed theatre director who receives a seemingly limitless genius grant and builds an entire city block populated with surrogates of himself and surrogates of those surrogates ad infinitum; play-within-a-play performance art on the scale of real life, eventually questioning reality itself in soul-stripping Borgesian fashion. Hoffman is an open wound in the heart of the film, a doomed figure struggling with impermanence of art and life alike. It's devastating, the sort of role (and movie) that yields more insight into the viewer than the artists and one that has become all but unwatchable in light of Hoffman's death.

The first time I personally registered Hoffman's presence in a movie was in 1999. I was deep in the throes of typically tragicomic teenage years when Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe's autobiographical treatise on the rocking 1970s exploded into my consciousness. In it, Hoffman played rock critic Lester Bangs like a rock'n'roll shaman, imbued with infinite reserves of melancholy, wisdom and indefinable mojo, giving sweet succor to my geek heart with the immortal passage of dialogue directed at a young critic betrayed by his assigned band: "The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone else when we're uncool...I know you think those guys are your friends. You wanna be a true friend to them? Be honest and merciful." Resonant words for any nerdy teenager but, beyond that, profoundly impactful on the nascent critic in me. My first real experience of arts criticism had come not from the writing of Pauline Kael or Greil Marcus but via the gravelly baritone of Philip Seymour Hoffman, speaking for all of us — the terminally uncool. He made writing about the arts — an unglamorous profession if ever there was one — sound worthwhile. I'll always have that to hold against him. That and the premature exit.

 
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