Philip Seymour Hoffman: A (Cinematic) Journey That Risks the Dark

Today is Philip Seymour Hoffman’s birthday; he would have been 47 years old. In the past five months I have only been able to bring myself to see two Hoffman films that I had never seen before, the Steve Martin-starring comedy Leap of Faith (1992) and the relatively recent drama A Late Quartet (2012). In any case I would like to take a look back at some of the other performances by Philip Seymour Hoffman that I really love. I only wish I could have found a good clip from Nobody’s Fool (1994), in which the young Hoffman plays a small-town police deputy, since that was the first film performance of his that made me sit up and take notice.

“Law & Order” episode “The Violence of Summer” (1991, episode directed by Don Scardino) – Making his television debut in this February 1991 (season one) episode of the long-running series, Hoffman looks very much like the 23-year-old that he was, fresh out of college and his hair still strawberry blonde (it would eventually fade into a paler, whiter shade). “Law & Order” is a show that was famous for featuring up-and-coming actors before they hit it big and this episode is no exception; besides Hoffman, Samuel L. Jackson is also featured.

Twister (1996, dir. Jan de Bont) – I recently saw this disaster flick again and it was even better than I had remembered. In this scene, the gang of tornado-hunters gathers around the dinner table and Hoffman regales the group with a wild tale about one of the film’s main characters (Bill Paxton). Hoffman’s grinning countenance and unkempt red hair make his “Dusty” a loveable character.

Flawless (1999, dir. Joel Schumacher) – There are problems (well, flaws) with this uneven dramedy. Hoffman’s performance, however, is wonderful. Rusty is not a run-of-the-mill straight-actor-in-drag routine. True, the part is campy, but there are some interesting depths to Hoffman’s portrayal. Statistically speaking, I don’t know how much of what is seen onscreen comes from Joel Schumacher’s script, but anyway it feels like Hoffman added that extra special something to make the role his own.

The Ides of March (2011, dir. George Clooney) – Based on this film alone, I have to say that I don’t think that highly of Clooney as a director or as a screenwriter, nor do I think too well of his decision to cast the markedly bland Ryan Gosling in the lead role, but it is obvious in this scene that Hoffman was operating on a much greater level, acting-wise. Gosling looks totally lost, but Hoffman adds some oomph to the proceedings. The pretty-boy star can’t deliver, but the character actor can.

A Late Quartet (2012, dir. Yaron Zilberman) – Cliched screenwriting and relationship-based melodrama threaten to overwhelm the classical music elements of the plot here, but Hoffman delivers yet another detailed characterization of another flawed man in his repertoire of flawed people. The character’s unhappiness with his string quartet partners is connected to the unhappiness in his marriage, a complicated set of issues made watchable due to the actor’s conviction in his scenes.

The Master (2012, dir. Paul Thomas Anderson) – (SPOILERS: this scene is from the end of the film.) A little over a year after seeing The Master on the big screen, I still say that it is not a particularly good movie, but I can’t really deny how great Hoffman was in the title role. To quote his Lancaster Dodd character from another scene, “We are not helpless. And we are on a journey that risks the dark.” That second line could be used to sum up Hoffman’s career.

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I Feel Kind of Guilty About Dennis Farina

Here’s the thing: I read about Dennis Farina passing away yesterday and I felt terrible about it.

At home (I’m on vacation now), I keep lists of actors. It’s an obsessive-compulsive thing. I have lists of favorite actors, lists of actors whose films I have yet to see (oh, to actually watch something with Christoph Waltz… but I digress) and lists of actors who I’ve seen in some stuff but I don’t yet consider them “favorites.” Some time ago I put Dennis Farina on a sub-list of actors who I should eventually put on the not-yet-favorite list.

It’s true that I quite like him in Out of Sight, which I sometimes consider my Steven Soderbergh film if I’m not in the mood to lean towards Sex, Lies, and Videotape. Farina’s good in Out of Sight as Jennifer Lopez’s dad, the kind of guy who knows that his daughter, a U.S. marshal, wants a gun for her birthday.

I also recall his being the host of “Unsolved Mysteries,” a show which still makes me feel kind of creeped out. Most of that had to do with the music and Robert Stack’s somewhat unsettling voice (when he was the host), so I guess that’s not Dennis Farina’s fault.

What always bothered me, though, was Farina’s character on “Law & Order.” I’m a big, big fan of Dick Wolf’s entire L&O universe (though I’ve never seen “Law & Order: Trial by Jury” or “Conviction,” or that TV movie from the late 90s with Chris Noth) but I could never really enjoy watching Farina’s detective, Joe Fontana. It always stung that he replaced Jerry Orbach – no one was better than Det. Lennie Briscoe – who died later that year in 2004. (He was the same age as Farina: 69.) There’s one particular episode with Farina that irritated me: “Locomotion,” from season 15, in which Farina is so angered with the uncooperative suspect that he tries to make him talk by pushing his head down into a toilet in the guy’s apartment. It seemed so thuggish, so totally unlike what the great detectives from the first decade of the show would have done.

Anyway. I just feel bad about Dennis Farina passing away so young. I feel bad that I had the chance to see him in person at the Museum of the Moving Image at an October 2011 event and I decided not to go. (I guess I was busy with some college midterms.) The screening was for a film called The Last Rites of Joe May and Farina was there to discuss it and his career in general. I wish I had gone; it might have changed my perspective on this actor.

Law & Order: A History in Images

I’m a big fan of “Law & Order.” Like, really big. The spinoffs are certainly entertaining, but nothing beats the original show. For some time I’ve been watching the first 8 seasons (1990-1998), which are available instantly through streaming on Netflix. Every now and then I notice a shot that’s particularly interesting, so here’s a collection of a dozen great shots from the earlier days of “Law & Order.”

“By Hooker, by Crook” (1990: Season 1, Episode 7) – Detectives Greevey and Logan are up all night going through the records.

“Asylum” (1991: Season 2, Episode 4) – Ben Stone, my personal favorite Executive Assistant District Attorney from the series, grills a witness in the men’s bathroom.

“God Bless the Child” (1991: Season 2, Episode 5) – Logan, listening in to a conversation.

“The Working Stiff” (1992: Season 2, Episode 22) – death at the desktop (a visual metaphor for the 90s?).

“Right to Counsel” (1993: Season 3, Episode 12) – showing the great L&O tradition of walking, talking and eating (with A.D.A. Paul Robinette and Executive A.D.A. Ben Stone).

“Animal Instinct” (1993: Season 3, Episode 18) – …because when you show a scientist’s death, you might as well include the lab rats.

“Apocrypha” (1993: Season 4, Episode 3) – Ben Stone with a Bible and his trusty bifocals (is that what they are? I know they’re some kind of glasses… obviously).

“Rebels” (1995: Season 6, Episode 2) – an early role for Chris Messina, though cut short before the opening credits: “Looks like the alien clawed its way out.”

“Angel” (1995: Season 6, Episode 8) – Jack McCoy, successor to Ben Stone as Executive A.D.A., whose eyebrows are all you need to see to know that the actor is Sam Waterston.

“Homesick” (1996: Season 6, Episode 22) – one of McCoy’s more amusing moments in the courtroom.

“Aftershock” (1996: Season 6, Episode 23) – Detective Lennie Briscoe after the tragic car accident that killed another character; the haunting final image of the sixth season.

“Terminal” (1997: Season 7, Episode 23) – the most powerful moment that Steven Hill ever had as District Attorney Adam Schiff, all in the last minute of the seventh season finale after Schiff’s wife dies. “Law & Order” doesn’t usually make you cry, especially not the normally stoic and cantankerous Schiff, but this scene – seeing his character so emotional – would have you bawling. What an actor.