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R.I.P., Philip Seymour Hoffman

February 4, 2014

In addition to being so ubiquitous in reruns for awhile at least a few shows made fun of this aspect (it’s not as true anymore, but still somewhat true), Law & Order (the original series) is probably remembered today mostly for the opening narration and “ca-ching” transitions, Jerry Orbach’s memorable way with a quip, Sam Waterston’s stiff-backed and moral but often sneaky prosecutor (later D.A.), and its (mostly) rigid formula of the police trying to solve the crime in the first half and the prosecutors trying to punish the criminals in the second half. But those who lived in New York City could especially appreciate two aspects of the show, even if they weren’t big fans; (1) the use of real locations that lent an authenticity to the proceedings, even with the fake addresses flashed on screen, and (2) a lot of New York stage actors either got their start on the show or were otherwise able to showcase their talents on it (creator Dick Wolf used to say if a New York City stage actor didn’t have an episode credit from the show on their resume, they were either just starting out or were never any good). An example can be found in the first season episode “The Violence of Summer”, where the prosecutors (Michael Moriarty and Richard Brooks) and police (George Dzundza and Chris Noth) investigate three young men who raped a newspaper reporter (Megan Gallagher), and possibly a fourth man as well. Samuel L. Jackson, just starting to break out, played the defense lawyer, Gil Bellows, probably best known today for his roles in Ally Macbeal and The Shawshank Redemption, played one of the defendants, and another defendant, in his very first role, was Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died February 1 at the age of 46.

The first time I ever saw Hoffman (I didn’t start watching L&O until it was into reruns) was in Scent of a Woman, one of three films he had out that year (the others were the indie film My New Gun and the Steve Martin drama Leap of Faith). Though most of the movie, of course, is set in New York City, as Lt. Col Frank Slade (Al Pacino) decides to have one last fling before killing himself, it begins and ends at an exclusive prep school, mostly featuring kids who were to the manor born mixing with the occasional scholarship student. Hoffman plays George Willis Jr., one of those rich kids, and though Chris O’Donnell (who played Charlie, the main character of the film), looked more the part than Hoffman did (Charlie was actually a scholarship student), Hoffman carried himself perfectly a privileged wiseacre, as well as the scene near the end where he tries to evade a question that has the threat of expulsion behind it. The movie isn’t fondly remembered today – most seem to see it as Pacino at his hammiest, and getting an Oscar for it despite giving better, far more deserving performances earlier in his career – but even back then, every scene Hoffman is in feels authentic.

As Scotty J.

After that performance, though his stage work was becoming notable (he would later earn two Tony nominations, including one in 2000 for his work with John C. Reilly in a revival of Sam Shepard’s play True West), Hoffman bounced around in bit parts for a while. Most memorable, for me, were his performances as an uptight police officer in Nobody’s Fool, as one of a team of weather scientists in Twister, and (in a performance that’ll be especially hard to watch now) a recovering alcoholic in When a Man Loves a Woman. However, in 1996 (the same year Twister came out), he had a small role in Hard Eight (as a gambler) that also began what became his most fruitful collaboration in film, that being with writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson. Hoffman went on to appear in every film Anderson made (except There Will Be Blood), and it was for Anderson that he gave the performance that first made most critics (and the public) take notice. Boogie Nights, Anderson’s valentine to the 70’s porn film industry, featured a large number of memorable performances (from, among others, star Mark Wahlberg, Burt Reynolds, Julianne Moore, and Heather Graham), but Hoffman somehow stood out as Scotty J, the boom mike operator who falls in love with porn actor Dirk Diggler (Wahlberg) the first time he sees him. The scene where Scotty tries to kiss Dirk and then apologizes when Dirk doesn’t respond well is still painful to watch, because Hoffman just presents himself so nakedly with his desire, embarrassment and shame all mixed at once.

The Big Lebowski is another ensemble film that has arguably become *the* cult film of the last 15 years or so, and features a number of memorable moments and performances (my personal favorite being Julianne Moore’s hilariously affected performance artist). Yet even here, Hoffman is able to stand out as Brandt, the unctuous assistant to the “real” Mr. Lebowski (David Huddleston). With his forced laugh, habit of repeating things twice, and attempts to be cheerful no matter what the situation as he shows the Dude (Jeff Bridges) around, Hoffman takes what could have been a nothing role and made something memorable out of it despite only being in a couple of scenes (when the cult TV show Veronica Mars paid homage to Hoffman’s first scene in the episode “Lord of the Pi’s”, the effort was sincere, but the actor playing the Brandt character wasn’t nearly as obsequious or funny). For many people, his work that same year as a man who makes obscene phone calls in Todd Solondz’s Happiness was just as memorable. I must confess I’m not a fan of Solondz in general – I think he’s exploiting his characters while pretending to expose the cruelty of the world (which I think he does in a facile, obvious way) – but I do concede Hoffman was good in the film.

Freddie (Hoffman) with Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Dickie (Jude Law).

Another substandard film Hoffman partly redeemed with his performance came the following year in Flawless. He plays a drag queen who gives Robert De Niro (as a bigoted ex-cop) singing lessons to help him with his speech therapy after a stroke. Joel Schumacher’s film never rises above its schematic plot or characters, but Hoffman somehow breaks past that. Much better films showing off his talents came later that year in The Talented Mr. Ripley (the first of two films he’d do with Anthony Minghella) and Magnolia (his second film with Anderson). In the former, he played Freddie Miles, the snobbish friend of Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law), and the first to suspect Tom Ripley (Matt Damon), who has ostensibly come to bring Dickie back to America (they’re in Italy), isn’t entirely who he says he is. Whether teasing Ripley for how easy he has it, calling him out for peeping in on Dickie when he’s with his girlfriend Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow), or challenging Ripley for lying about what’s happened to Dickie (when Ripley asks if Freddie has something to say, Freddie responds, “I think I’m saying it”), Hoffman again does a lot with a small role. In the latter film, he takes a 180-degree turn as Phil Parma, a selfless, devoted male nurse to Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), a dying man. This could easily have been a sentimental slop of a role, but Hoffman brings humor (the shy way he orders adult magazines so he can find the number to call Frank TJ Mackey (Tom Cruise), Earl’s estranged son) and honest emotion (on the phone with one of Frank’s people, he says he realizes he sounds like the guy in movies looking for his long-lost son, but points out those scenes really do happen).

Many of the comments I’ve read about Hoffman’s death have expressed, along with shock and grief, the idea he never gave a bad performance. I would agree somewhat with that, but I do think there were times when he held something back from a role and could have gone deeper, and it’s usually with what could be called “schlub” roles. David Mamet’s State and Main, which came out the following year, is a satire on filmmaking that skewers both Hollywood and the local “yokels” where a particular film is being made, but Hoffman’s character, Joseph Turner White, the screenwriter, is sentimentalized as the hero. Hoffman does make Mamet’s highly stylized dialogue sound natural, and the scene where he comes up with how to keep Sarah Jessica Parker’s character from walking of the film is a terrific piece of acting, but he seems hampered by the narrow conception of the role. Similarly, in Spike Lee’s 25th Hour, which came out two years later, he’s best in scenes like when he’s arguing with his stockbroker friend (Barry Pepper) over who’s more appealing to women, and less so when he’s crushing on student Anna Paquin (In Cold Mountain, from the following year, which re-teamed him with Anthony Minghella, he seemed more at home in playing a wayward preacher). However, in the highly underrated Owning Mahowney, from the following year, he used that narrow conception to his advantage in giving one of his best performances. Richard Kwietniowski’s film is based on the true story of a bank manager (Hoffman) who embezzled money to feed a gambling addiction, and few have done a better job than Hoffman of playing someone so monomoniacally obsessed. He’s hunched down, rarely makes eye contact, doesn’t indulge in any other vices available, and ignores anything and everything, even his girlfriend (Minnie Driver). Yet despite the fact he almost never changes expression, you can understand why he’s so enthralled. Hoffman isn’t the only reason to see the movie – John Hurt is also terrific as the casino manager who jumps through hoops to enable Hoffman’s addiction – but he’s the best.

As Truman Capote, with Harper Lee (Catherine Keener).

Hoffman received his first Oscar nomination, and his only win, for playing another real-life person, this time the title role in Bennett Miller’s Capote (2005). It’s become popular in recent years to say Doug McGrath’s Infamous, which came out the following year and told essentially the same story (Truman Capote researching and writing In Cold Blood), was the better film, and I frankly don’t understand that sentiment (though I will agree Daniel Craig in Infamous does a better job as Perry Smith than Clifton Collins Jr. did in the same role here). Part of that is because Miller and writer Dan Futterman aren’t condescending to the Kansas characters like McGrath’s film is. But while Toby Jones (who played Capote in Infamous) bore a closer physical resemblance to Capote than Hoffman does (Hoffman is simply too tall), Hoffman more than makes up for it in other ways. He’s able to look odd and shrunken without calling attention to himself. He uses the famous Capote voice not only as a way to convey how much of a gadfly he was, but also to reveal the vulnerability inside, especially in his scenes with Perry. And he was able to do so much in just one scene, which comes out early in the film, and in the moment I knew I was going to love it. Capote is traveling by train to Kansas with Harper Lee (Catherine Keener, also good), and as the porter settles them into their stateroom, he goes on and on about how much he admires Capote’s work. When the porter leaves, Lee immediately accuses Capote of paying the porter to say what he did. Hoffman tries to feign outrage before giving up, simply laughing and asking, “How did you know?”, as if he was laughing at his own ridiculousness. It’s one of the best portrayals of ego I’ve ever seen.

I’m not the first person to point out it’s become somewhat of a cliche at this point for an Oscar winner or “respected” actor to almost immediately slide into the role of an action villain. And yet when Hoffman made the leap the year after his Oscar in Mission Impossible III, he avoided the traps that come with that type of role. The movie itself, for me, was like all of the Mission movies to date; some occasional good action scenes (admittedly, this film was the best in that regard for me, despite being helmed by the least talented director of the four) that ultimately couldn’t get past mediocre material. But Hoffman (who had warmed up, in way, for this role in smaller roles as the head of a phone-sex line in Punch-Drunk Love – his third film with P.T. Anderson – and as sleazy tabloid reporter Freddie Lounds in Brett Ratner’s by-the-numbers version of Red Dragon) keeps you watching whenever he’s on-screen during the dramatic scenes. He avoids camping it up, and makes the character intently focused and extremely dangerous, especially when he’s captured and yet taunting Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), “Do you have a wife? A girlfriend? Because if you do, I’m gonna find her. I’m gonna hurt her. I’m gonna make her bleed, and cry, and call out your name. And then I’m gonna find you, and kill you right in front of her.” It’s actually scary, and it’s too bad the movie lets him down with the plot twist near the end.

Rehearsing with director Sidney Lumet.

2005 may have been the year Hoffman gave the performance that won him an Oscar, and the Mission Impossible movie may have been his biggest hit to date, but 2007, IMHO, was Hoffman’s best year creatively, at least in film. Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead saw him playing a role that, in retrospect, it’s surprising he didn’t play more often; an ordinary, somewhat decent man who makes a bad decision that spins his life out of control (along with several other lives). In this case, it’s two brothers (Hoffman and Ethan Hawke) both in desperate straits (Hawke needs money to send his daughter to a good school, while Hoffman needs money to cover up the fact he’s embezzling money to feed his drug habit) who, at Hoffman’s insistence, decide to rob their parents’ (Albert Finney and Rosemary Harris) jewelry store, on the theory it’ll be simple and quick and no one will get hurt. Naturally, it all goes horribly wrong. In interviews, Lumet stressed the fact this was a melodrama, and it is, but he and writer Kelly Masterson are also able to make it tragic without making it feel weighted down. A major reason for that, as usual, is Hoffman; at first, his character seems completely together, with a loving relationship with Marisa Tomei as his wife (the movie opens with a sex scene between them) and him clearly relishing the role of cool uncle toward’s Hawke’s daughter. But then you see not only the drug addiction and embezzlement, but also the bitterness and isolation underneath his character. Probably the big showcase scene for him is the one where he lets out his bitterness towards Finney’s character, but Hoffman is equally good in the scene where Tomei (whose character has also been having an affair with Hawke’s) tells him she’s leaving him, and he literally has no response to what she needs. It’s a powerful moment.

Hoffman brought another ordinary guy, although very different and less heightened circumstances, in Tamara Jenkins’ The Savages. Jenkins’ film was the second film that year to deal with dementia/Alzheimer’s in a major way – Sarah Polley’s Away From Her being the other – but whereas Polley’s movie was poetic and melancholy, Jenkins found the dark humor in her subject even though it never denied the pain. Hoffman and Laura Linney play siblings who have to deal with their father’s (Philip Bosco) dementia. Both of them ultimately want to do the right thing by their father, but they’re also both needy in their own way, as well as dealing with their own issues with him. Jenkins’ film walks a continually tightrope throughout (going the wrong way could either lead to sentimental melodrama or sitcom contrivance), but she never puts a foot wrong. A lot of that is due to Hoffman and Linney. This was the first time they ever worked together, but you’d never know it from their relationship here, going from prickly (when she tries to justify a 9/11 grant she received, which he finds ridiculous) to guarded affection (when he finds out she’s swiped pain pills from another patient, and he simply asks, “Do they work?”), that’s played out not only in their dialogue but their non-speaking moments (as when she feeds him one of those pills, or when they’re caught out for eating food at a support group meeting before they’re supposed to).

As Gust Avrakotos, with Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks).

As good as both of those performances were, it was Hoffman’s portrayal of real-life CIA agent Gust Avrakotos in Mike Nichols’ Charlie Wilson’s War that same year that earned him his second Oscar nomination (this time as Best Supporting Actor). Admittedly, the film itself isn’t quite as good as the other two – an earlier draft by writer Aaron Sorkin (who adapted the book by George Crile) shows a more politically incendiary script before someone (the studio, Nichols, the real-life parties involved) watered it down somewhat – but Hoffman’s performance is amazing. And Sorkin and Nichols give him a great character entrance – Gust is pacing in the office of a superior (John Slattery) who condescendingly assumes Gust is there to apologize, and Gust’s response is, “Excuse me, what the fuck?” That scene, where he rips Slattery’s character a new one and breaks his window (again), is arguably the most well-known of the movie (if you go by the number of YouTube hits it’s received, anyway), but while it sums up his character in about a minute and lets Hoffman indulge in an over-the-top style he rarely got to show but excelled at, it’s another office scene that I think provides his best moment. Gust is sent over to see Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks), the Texas Congressman who wants to know what the CIA is doing to help Afghanistan in their fight against the Soviet Union, because he wants to help. Along with his meeting with Gust, Charlie also has to deal with another crisis – he’s being investigated by the Justice Department – and at one point, Gust lets slip what he knows about that crisis and how. It’s an hysterically funny moment – I saw this in a theater twice, and both times, the theater exploded in laughter – and what makes it funnier is how Hoffman underplays it. And as profane and uncouth as he is (Charlie at one point says, “You’re no James Bond”), he is the only one who sees the larger picture, and Hoffman convinces you of that as well.

The following year, he got to play a theater director struggling with illness and the women in his life in Synecdoche, New York, the directorial debut of Charlie Kaufman. The film doesn’t have the absurdist humor of Kaufman’s previous films (particularly the two films he did with Spike Jonze), but Hoffman does capture the obsession and confusion of his character. He also scored his third Oscar nomination that year for playing a priest accused of being a pedophile in Doubt, but while he gives the strongest performance of the main characters, he is hampered by the staginess of the film and the narrow conception of the part. Similarly, he’s fine as a rebellious DJ in Pirate Rock, even if the film isn’t. He made his directorial debut in 2010 with Jack Goes Boating, but while he showed care with the other actors (especially Amy Ryan as his love interest), he himself seemed again constrained by his role. Finally, while he did a decent job in supporting roles in Pirate Radio (in a deleted scene, he extols the virtues of the Beatles), MoneyballThe Ides of March and A Late Quartet. but there was nothing distinguishable about his performances in those. But in 2012, he garnered his fourth Oscar nomination in his fifth and final collaboration of P.T. Anderson, The Master. Anderson’s film was long believed to be an expose of Scientology, but it turns out to be a lot more complicated than that., and Hoffman avoids easy caricature as well in his performance. Lancaster Dodd may more than likely be a charlatan, but you get on a certain level he does believe what he’s preaching (partly because he’s trying to find order for himself as well as the world and his followers), and you also get to see he might even be the power of his house (Amy Adams, who was also nominated in the supporting category for her performance as Dodd’s wife, is also terrific. And once again, Hoffman is able to skillfully weave through the quiet scenes (as with one of his meetings with Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix)) and the more energetic ones (when he’s running through exercises with the group, known as The Cause) with equal aplomb.

Another theme I noticed with the comments about his death is how sure people were Hoffman still had great work in him. I still haven’t seen The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (I did see the first one and thought it was decent, not great), but from all appearances, it looks like he was up to the role of game master Plutarch Heavensbee. And aside from the final entries in that series, the film of his I was most looking forward to was A Most Wanted Man, Anton Corbijn’s adaptation of John le Carre’s novel about a suspected terrorist. And as far as films he could have done in the future, I’ve always hoped he would one day (sooner rather than later) play the title role in an adaptation of Caleb Carr’s The Alienist (the term used pre-20th century for those who studied mental pathology, about the character in 1890’s New York City (when Theodore Roosevelt was police commissioner) teaming up with a reporter, a police secretary, and two police detectives to find a serial killer. It’s one of my favorite novels of the last 20 years, and I’ve had no doubt Hoffman could pull off that character.

As Lester Bangs.

Finally, a number of tributes to Hoffman’s work on film (again, I can’t speak to his work on stage, though that had many fans as well) mentioned the difficulty in picking just one performance as his “best”. Certainly, that would be tough for me as well, as I can think of four that leap to mind immediately; his work in The Talented Mr. Ripley, MagnoliaCapote and Charlie Wilson’s War, and there are several others just below that one. But if there’s one performance I come back to time and again, it’s his performance as Lester Bangs in Cameron Crowe’s loving tribute to early-70’s rock, Almost Famous. Based on Crowe’s early career as a reporter for Rolling Stone when he was only 15 years old, the film sets up Bangs as a cynical mentor to William Miller (Patrick Fugit), Crowe’s alter-ego. As in real life, Bangs tries to cut through what he sees as the bullshit of both rock-n-roll and rock journalism (“The day (rock-n-roll) ceases to be dumb is the day it ceases to be real!”), even as he recognizes William is too starry-eyed to notice. But we also see a softer side of him (which Crowe claims was there in real life as well), which comes out in his final scene, a late night phone conversation with William; when William says he’s glad Bangs was home when he called, Bangs replies, “I’m always home. I’m uncool!”, and adds, “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone else when we’re uncool.” In his tribute post to Hoffman, Crowe wrote that he originally meant for the scene to be a call to arms, but Hoffman turned it into something quieter and more powerful. The genius of Hoffman’s acting is he was capable of both the call to arms and the quieter stuff, as well as the ability to play the larger-than-life character and the ordinary guy with equal aplomb.

Postscript: I hadn’t meant to talk about this, but I suppose it can’t be ignored. It goes without saying my heart goes out to his girlfriend (costume designer Mimi O’Donnell) and their three children. And I don’t pretend to know why he did what he did, but I do know addiction is a disease, and to act otherwise is not only to miss the point, but is both insulting and sad. The sooner we treat addiction as such, the easier it may be to prevent tragedies like this one occurring.

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