' ' Cinema Romantico: In Memoriam: Philip Seymour Hoffman

Monday, February 03, 2014

In Memoriam: Philip Seymour Hoffman

I was literally watching "Moneyball", on TV, over lunch, when the inconceivable news came down that Philip Seymour Hoffman had died at the age of 46. I had just finished the scene in which Hoffman as manager of Major League Baseball's Oakland A's - the real-life Art Howe - attempted negotiating his contract with the general manager (Brad Pitt) only to be rebuffed. As Hoffman walked away, he wriggled his left hand, as if suggesting an impending heart attack from the wear and tear of his pressure-packed profession. For that role he had willingly shaved his head, reveled in paunch and even took to wearing an abominable polo shirt that I imagine ably echoes the wardrobe of most Major League Baseball managers. For a stage-trained actor, for a man who won a Best Actor Oscar for playing Truman Capote, for a man who wholly embodied the late rock critic Lester Bangs, the role of Art Howe seemed so unlikely.

Last year at the Academy Awards, where Hoffman was nominated for his Supporting Part in Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master", the camera caught sight of him in the audience with his young son, Cooper. It was unspeakably touching. I adored the idea that he would take along his little boy for Hollywood's biggest night, fatherly love shining through. A few months later it was revealed that Hoffman had checked into detox for prescription pill and heroin addiction. It blindsided me. The man who squired his son to the Oscars was the same man who resorted to snorting heroin? It seemed so unlikely.

I had seen Philip Seymour Hoffman before "Boogie Nights", but the first indelible image I have of him in my mind is coming through the back gate at Jack Horner's pool party. It is nigh impossible to manage being ironic and endearing simultaneously to the sounds of "Sexy Thing" by Hot Chocolate, but he pulled the trick. He was so remarkable as Scotty J., and still such a virtual unknown, that it must have been easy to presume he was playing a part drafted in the zone of his own persona. Then years passed, roles and more roles were played, and this was proven wholly false.

He formed a regal actor/director partnership with Paul Thomas Anderson - that actually began with "Hard Eight" - and culminated last year as Lancaster Dodd, the maybe, maybe not title character of "The Master." It concluded with him singing acapella "(I'd Like To Get You on a) Slow Boat to China" to Joaquin Phoenix, a sequence as riveting as it was mysterious. In hindsight it feels like the perfect ethereal conclusion to their collaboration. Of course, that's just hindsight, and all of us would have preferred to see that collaboration continue. Life, however, as it so often does, had other plans to which we will never be privy.

His versatility was a trademark, as was his raw power which he only unleashed when role and scene required it. He could be comic, theatrical, restrained, electrifying, vulnerable. It is the vulnerability I think of today. "He can convey such vulnerability in some roles," once wrote the late great Roger Ebert, "that we're on his side without the script needing to persuade us." I think it's safe to say, from observing the outpouring of appreciation on my Twitter feed yesterday afternoon, that we were on all his side. Whether his death was a result of a drug overdose, as has been reported, or not, and what drove him to relapse, is not my business. That's between him and his loved ones, and I offer his loved ones my deepest condolences. We all have demons, we all have failings, but that does not make us failures nor demons.

In "Before The Devil Knows You're Dead" Hoffman played Andy, one of two brothers who perpetrate an ill-fated jewel heist. Really, the film is less about the heist than what leads to the heist and the fall-out when the heist goes awry. Andy is portrayed as suffering from a myriad of problems, but one of these is a severely expensive drug habit. My intention is not to play psychologist, to state that he must have taken the part on account of his own travails, but how the character of Andy, sensing rightly or wrongly that he had no way out, went down the substance abuse rabbit hole. The sensation of life closing in on someone (anyone, any of us) is nearly inexpressible, but he expressed it, casually, quietly, and then violently.

Yet, other moments in Hoffman's canon suggest a resistance to this notion. Consider "Jack Goes Boating", the 2010 film which was the only one he directed. It was modestly received, admittedly imperfect, but one for which I retain much fondness. Perhaps because his paralyzing introversion was something to which I could relate. In front of the camera he played a big-hearted, if socially awkward (utterly inept?) lug, who fancied himself a rastafarian, wearing dreads, holding up The Melodians' "Rivers of Babylon" as a personal anthem and "Positive Vibes" as a personal mantra. He cooks dinner for his girlfriend (Amy Ryan) and invites his friends (John Ortiz and Daphne Rubin-Vega). But the night does not conform to the ideal he had created of it in his head. His precious dinner he worked so hard to concoct is overcooked. His friends decide to get drunk and get high and argue. Jack panics and withdraws to the bathroom. His friends refuse to let him wallow. They reach out to him. They force him to reach back.

Life is never ideal. It has its complications, its imperfections, it rears its ugly head, and we find different ways to cope. In "Jack Goes Boating" everyone is trying to cope, they succeed and they fail. But for one moment everyone sets that shit aside to minister to their loved one. I wish it how was the film ended. It's not how the film ends. Because it's not how things work. I wish it was how things worked.


Alex Withrow said...

I love what you said about his work in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, which remains my favorite performance of his. I can't imagine the mental state he had to get in to play Andy. Such a commanding performance.

Great post here my friend.

Nick Prigge said...

Yeah, Before the Devil was the one I turned to on Sunday afternoon. Maybe not such a good choice, if only because much of the content has eerie real life parallels, but his performance is so titanic. He's off the handle one minute, and then so utterly detached the next.