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Friday, March 14, 2014

The Master- Philip Seymour Hoffman- (July 23, 1967- February 2, 2014)

This post is a more personal than my usual because Philip Seymour Hoffman’s shocking death has caused me more sadness, just of any other performer, but any public figure I can think of. It’s not just that I was a fan of his work. I was, I am, but I haven’t even seen everything he has appeared in (yet). It’s more than just his absence as actor. It’s the fact that there was a real truth to him, an essence of genuine veracity that made him so compelling, and that he this used as part of his technique. I’m sad that Philip Seymour Hoffman the actor is gone, but for some reason I am also very sad about the departure of Hoffman the person. 

I cannot think of an actor that exerts so much of their natural selves in their roles, yet because of such talent, remains totally immersed in the characters they play. Playing ever role flawlessly, and so many different types of roles, yet each with a certain kind of signature loneliness, a imperfection, a subtle flaw in the character that made them seem more real and that much more worthy of our sympathy. 

This led me to go on a watching spree. Going through the various countries’ catalogues of Netflix, I found a good many of Hoffman’s films. It has taken me until now to compile some sort of retrospective of what I think are some of his greatest roles.

Never really good looking enough to be a leading man, the majority of his roles were supporting. His tremendous ability as a character actor led him to be cast in a very diverse array of roles, the best of which are mostly small and in the middle of films. MoneyBall, Talented Mr. Ripley, Lebowski, The Ides of March….and one such role I really enjoy is in Punch-Drunk Love (2002). He plays the small-time hustler and mattress salesman Dean Trumbell.
The role is brief and he appears just long enough to curse up a storm. The phone conversation scene between Sandler and Hoffman is one of the film’s highlights. Hoffman is in fine form as Sander tells Hoffman to go Fuck himself.

“Shut up, shut the fuck up!...Did you just say go fuck myself?...That wasn’t good, you’re dead.” There is this weird cartoonish music in the background. It’s a very nice edition to the scene.
 Anderson even made this ridiculous video feature Dean Trumbell-

As far as screen time goes, Jack goes Boating (2010) is much more fulfilling, and with this film Hoffman makes his directing debut. Hoffman’s Jack is a lovable introvert limo driver, who loves reggae. The plot is revolves around Jack, his best friends Clyde and Lucy, and Connie, Jack’s potential love interest. The dysfunction of Clyde and Lucy eventually reflects positively on Jack and Connie’s courtship as they vie never to go down the road they see their friends on. Mostly a sweet, quirky film, near the end a major catastrophe occurs, not only in the plot, but also in the filmmaking. This scene mostly derails the film, taking the overall quality down substantially, but still, a worthwhile watch for Hoffman fans.

Obviously Capote (2005) was Hoffman’s piece de resistance, and the work that made him a star, but having given it its second viewing, I’m not as convinced that it’s really as great a performance as some of his others. It’s just the drastic amount of skill he shows playing a character so truly unlike himself that gets people so excited.

Of course there are scenes in Capote, particularly when Capote is entertaining party-goers, friends, and fans, while they hang on his every word that Hoffman’s Capote is truly at in his element, but in some of the subtler scenes, where Capote describes his own difficulties of being different, these scenes now come across as less convincing. After having watched most of Hoffman’s catalogue I can’t help but contrast these scenes with others where he perhaps does a better job of creating a real aura of sympathy for the “unusual individual.” He is totally convincing in this role as Jack, and Jack is too an unusual individual, but maybe that's just because Jack seems closer characteristically to Hoffman himself.  

Capote’s demeanor as a gentle intellectual, and especially his voice, at times can be borderline unrealistic. However, what does come across is the villain underneath the soft, outer veneer. Director Bennet Millers’ vision of Capote. The exploitation, the façade, the doing-whatever-needs-to-be-done to complete the book that brings Truman Capote worldwide acclaim. Promises broken, truths twisted, relationship faked, and all witnesses executed.

After reading in Rolling Stone that Hoffman himself considered his performance in A Late Quartet (2012) to be his best, I had to check it out. I had been avoided it until then because I just couldn’t imagine the actors getting the portrayals of professional string players anywhere near accurate. Director Yaron Zilberman does a great job of shifting the focus away from the actual playing of the instruments, focusing much more on the psychology of being a professional classical musician, a New Yorker, a parent; however when the actors do play, they play with very convincing technique, and the pitfall of their faking badly is mostly avoided.

After watching A Late Quartet my initial reaction was one of nonchalance, but like most good films, it took two days for it to set in. After sinking in, a great film’s characters become real to me, and I think about them as if they truly exist. This not something I do on purpose, rather it is the effect of very affective filmmaking. The only other film that has blurred the lines between fiction and reality so seamlessly is Soderbergh’s Side Effects (2012), which is one of my favorite films. Sadly, the blurring of Hoffman’s character into non-existence now hits too close to home.

The Hoffman film that I am most thankful for is The Master (2012). Working again with P.T. Anderson of Punch-Drunk Love, the title of the film refers to the character Hoffman plays, but in fact is really just an apt description to Hoffman’s performance itself.
The plot itself is interesting, and the film very well made, yet it is the performances by Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix that are the highlights. They steal the glory from everywhere else. The chemistry is incredible and P.T. Anderson produces some immaculate scenes where the two actors are simply sitting across from each other, talking. The intensity makes the viewer uncomfortable. The takes are perfect. Great scenes captured and now immortalized. This film truly gave Hoffman the opportunity to play the role of the respected elder, a role he deserved to play. But the Doctor is not a hero. He creates a movement that influences thousands of people into believing in a doctrine of nonsense. Just as the doctor is inherently flawed and crazy, he is also incredibly convincing. There is no better actor who could have played this role than Hoffman.

In the same interview in Rolling Stone friends of Hoffman’s claim that playing Willie Loman on Broadway in 2012 changed him. The act of breaking down and crying night after night rewired his brain, some said. Actor Ethan Hawke who was recalls meeting with Hoffman a short time after the run ended noticing that Hoffman seemed different, more troubled, and that he had started drinking again. As sad as this sounds, it is this kind of investment in a role that makes watching Hoffman’s performances worth every minute of time we spend watching them. I remember standing in line, trying to get tickets to Death of a Salesman. They were sold out that day and I never tried again. I a missed the opportunity to watch the role that may have led to his death. In so many ways, another piece of sadness.