The Master (In All Ways)

What determines “quality” in an actor? How do we define, recognize, appreciate this subjective idea of quality? Is it really a subjective idea? Aren’t there some people about whom there is an objective, concrete truth that the performance will always be a good one, that you can always count on seeing an appearance worthy of your attention?

A couple of days ago I wrote about the appeal of actors and how important a striking visual presence can be. I distinctly remember thinking that in one of the film classes I took last semester. In early December we spent a week studying David Mamet; we watched The Winslow Boy on a Monday and then watched clips from other Mamet films on the following Wednesday. In between we had to read some Mamet-related interviews and essays.

Anyway, during this Wednesday class, one of the clips we watched was from State and Main (2000). In the scene we watched, William H. Macy was the focal point for the first few minutes. Actually, he was really the main character for the entire scene, but there was a very definite moment of difference when Philip Seymour Hoffman entered the scene. His character barely said anything – could hardly get a word in edgewise amidst Macy’s endless stream of chatter – but there was a feeling of something new and altogether separate when Hoffman showed up. The air in the classroom was somehow changed.

Looking at Philip Seymour Hoffman’s filmography, I know that I have only seen seven of his performances. Seven. That’s a small number, a single digit. And I can remember each of those seven times I saw the film or television work. No matter what the role was, Hoffman gave life to it. That’s what the best actors are always able to do.

  • Nobody’s Fool (1994): 12th grade, Mr. Milkman’s Literature of the 80s and 90s class (shown in conjunction with reading Richard Russo’s novel), spring 2010.
  • Twister (1996): seen on TV (some Starz or Encore cable channel) on a Saturday afternoon.

  • “Law & Order” episode “The Violence of Summer” (1991): I can’t remember if I first saw it on TV, but I’m pretty sure it was the first “Law & Order” episode I ever watched on Netflix Instant (probably because of Hoffman being in it), an action which reignited my interest in the series and the other shows in the L&O universe.
  • The Ides of March and Moneyball (both 2011): seen in fall (around October-November) of that year, both seen at the AMC Kips Bay theater in Manhattan.

  • The Master (2012): seen with my friend Zhanna at the Museum of the Moving Image on a Saturday afternoon, May 2013.

  • Flawless (1999): on an HBO cable channel, watched with my parents on a Friday evening in November 2013.

It’s odd, the things that lodge in your memory bank. All those specific memories of seeing those performances. There are so many movies which I have forgotten, but I have clear recollections of those works and, perhaps more importantly, the remembrance of what it was like to see them. I remember how I felt each time Philip Seymour Hoffman was onscreen. It’s hard to describe why I felt the way I did, but he always held my interest.

I remember in the spring of 2012 when my philosophy professor expressed delight at having secured a ticket for Death of a Salesman, in which Philip Seymour Hoffman was starring on Broadway. I wanted to see the show too, but I didn’t even attempt to get tickets. I guess I figured they would be sold out by the time I tried. That’s what comes back to me now: I will never be able to see a great actor in his element onstage. I couldn’t have known that in two short years he would be dead, but why didn’t I at least try to get a ticket? To see an actor’s craft in live performance, that’s the best thing. At least I have experienced Hoffman’s work in other media. Even only in screen form, I have always felt that there was this absolute, concrete truth that he was great at what he did. There was no question.

Even in a movie like The Master, which bothered me for so many reasons, I cannot deny what a totally magnetic force Hoffman was. This five-minute scene demonstrates some of that charisma. It also saddens me immensely to know that both Hoffman and his antagonist, Christopher Evan Welch, have passed away. “Our spirits live on in the whole of time,” indeed – the never-ending memory of celluloid.

It is so easy for someone to ask, Why does it matter when a celebrity dies? Why are we so affected? How do we grieve? I didn’t know Philip Seymour Hoffman personally, so what is my reaction truly founded on? Well, in a way, knowing an actor’s performances is like knowing a part of the person, the part that creates art. The part that breathes life into characters that had previously existed only as writing on pieces of paper, the part that creates a third dimension out of what was originally only two. I lament the loss of the art that I respected (and still respect) so much and also the art that will never come into existence.

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