Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: Philip Seymour Hoffman

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Philip Seymour Hoffman

by Tony Dayoub

"Actors are responsible to the people we play. I don't label or judge. I just play them as honestly and expressively and creatively as I can, in the hope that people who ordinarily turn their heads in disgust instead think, 'What I thought I'd feel about that guy, I don't totally feel right now.'"
- in hindsight, a revelatory quote by Philip Seymour Hoffman

It's now been nearly a week since Philip Seymour Hoffman passed. A surprising number of writings since then have focused on the circumstances of his death, shaming the actor, diminishing the monumental scale of his work... over 60 roles performed in just under 25 years. I was (and may still be) too floored by the untimely loss to really say anything coherent about the talented actor so soon after. But one thing I was determined not to do is judge the manner in which he departed. No one knows the personal pain of another. And he certainly gave enough of himself—both onstage and on screen—to influence colleagues and admirers alike. Whether the parts were big or small, the films significant or not, one always knew that an appearance by Philip Seymour Hoffman was sure to be captivating.

I first took note of him in 1997's Boogie Nights, where he played the sycophantic PA, Scotty J. This is the second of his films with frequent collaborator Paul Thomas Anderson, who seemed to have a gift for honing in on what made Hoffman so appealing, a sort of sad-sacky, pathetic quality that strangely made him both cringe-inducing and sympathetic. The key scene here is one where Scotty J gets Mark Wahlberg's porn superstar Dirk Diggler alone at a party and tries to kiss him. Dirk pushes him away, freaked out, and Scotty J tries to recover by changing the subject. But when he's left alone he starts sobbing in a new sports car he bought to impress Dirk, crying, "I'm a fucking idiot," over and over again.

He could take miserably scummy characters like Allen, the repressed obscene caller from Happiness (1998), and make him someone pitiable instead of simply frightening. In Spike Lee's 25th Hour Hoffman plays female-challenged schoolteacher Jacob Ellinsky, who lusts after his provocative student Mary (Anna Paquin). After running into the underage high-schooler at a nightclub, he finally musters the courage to kiss her before realizing the depth and breadth of trust he just broke between the burgeoning young woman and himself.

Even when Hoffman played men in positions of authority such as Doubt's Father Flynn or The Master's pseudo-philosophy guru, Lancaster Dodd, there seemed to be a chilling mess of rage, insecurity and repression roiling beneath the respectable mask. That Hoffman could tap into this ugly undercurrent so precisely and arouse such empathy time and time again is what makes it so upsetting that we lost such a talent. But the ability to express such pain doesn't come easily, so I guess I shouldn't be surprised how tortured he must have been in his own life. Philip Seymour Hoffman will be missed.

He died Sunday at the age of 46.

Recommended Films - Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, The Big Lebowski, Happiness, Magnolia, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Almost Famous, Punch-Drunk Love, Red Dragon, 25th Hour, Along Came Polly, Capote, Mission: Impossible III, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, Charlie Wilson's War, Synecdoche, New York, Doubt, The Ides of March, Moneyball, The Master

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