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.


On Corporeality

The first real “film criticism” paper I ever wrote was in July 2009, a month before my 17th birthday. I wrote about the tropes of “hero” and “villain” in The Dark Knight (2008) and how the lines between those roles are blurred. My writing style had only begun to take shape at that age, but the second-to-last paragraph – the most personal part of the essay – remains special for me.

“There is one scene in The Dark Knight that has moved me every time I have watched the film (three times). It is the scene between the Joker and Harvey (now “Two-Face”) in the evacuated Gotham General Hospital. After the Joker sits down next to Harvey’s bed, he pulls off the red wig and musses up his pulled-back hair and all of a sudden the Joker’s very human arms and hands, free of makeup, are on display. Even though his hands and forearms are visible at earlier points in the film (and in the scene set during Commissioner Loeb’s funereal parade, the Joker is briefly seen without any facial makeup), this time, the unblemished skin of the actor/character forces me to think about the cruel reality of Heath Ledger’s death. This was not an effect planned by the film-makers, of course, but it is film intersecting with real life and that is always something that happens. So easy is it to get carried away by the Grand Guignol spirit of the film, that it comes as a jolt to realize that there is a living, breathing human being underneath the cosmetics and outlandish costumes. We forget that the actor-as-Joker is flesh and blood and bone, a real person with thoughts and feelings who is also able to hide all that and convince us that his imaginary character is “real.” He is only acting, but damned if he hasn’t reeled us in and taken us for all we’ve got. It is perhaps the most poignant scene in the entire film, seeing the strong-looking arms of one whose life was ended far too early.”

I found myself thinking of that paragraph late last night when I caught a bit of Flawless (1999) on TV. Although I first saw the film just a few short months ago, I found myself thinking of the Dark Knight essay.

There is a scene early on in the film when Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing a female impersonator, is getting dressed in drag. There is a feeling similar to seeing Heath Ledger’s arms when Flawless shows Hoffman pulling himself into a dress, seeing all the freckles on his back. (If you pick up the latest copy of Rolling Stone, freckles are apparent there too.) It’s so easy to lose perspective on a person when he is the subject of an endless number of cover stories, editorials and blog posts, a surreal media onslaught. Those freckles remind you: there’s a human being underneath the aura of celebrity.

Flawless is not, I have to say, a flawless film, but Hoffman always demands your attention. The above clip is one of my favorite moments in the film. Sometimes movies are worth watching just for the way an actor can inhabit a character, regardless of issues with the script. The actor blends with the character in such a way that you are still drawn to him.

Part Two: What We Talk About When We Talk About Philip Seymour Hoffman

On Wednesday afternoon I placed a little bouquet of three red roses amongst the flowers gathered outside of Pickwick House, the apartment building where Philip Seymour Hoffman lived. It took me a while to get there – I don’t have much experience in navigating the West Village solo and at the moment I don’t have a cell phone to help me out – but I had a map drawn from what I had seen on Google Maps the night before. I wandered around until I eventually found Bethune Street, which is a sort of side street, fairly quiet. Except for two people talking on a stoop on the opposite side of the street, the area around Pickwick House was deserted. As I trudged through the slush from last night’s snowfall, past Sunday’s police barricade, I made my way to the memorial. I only stayed long enough to make sure my roses stood upright and neat, wiping off the remnants of the day’s rain, but I did notice a handwritten note (“The Village will miss you, Mr. Hoffman”) and a lovely portrait someone had drawn in pencil. I left immediately; I thought I might cry if I did not. I did stop and look back a few times, though.

It’s a curious thing, crying. When I heard that Philip Seymour Hoffman had died – “found dead” was the parlance I heard – I could not have shed any tears. News like that is numbing. So I existed for the next twelve or so hours with the information weighing in my mind, even as I left the house with my mother to go to a movie. It wasn’t until 3:00 am, standing in my kitchen, that I thought about the Oscars and the inevitable In Memoriam tribute which will bear Philip Seymour Hoffman’s name, and I began to cry a little. And then, on Monday, taking the train to school, as I watched the latest snowstorm drift across the Manhattan Bridge into the East River, I felt a tear welling in my eye. Inclement weather, you see: I remember when it rained the day after Natasha Richardson passed away.

I have heard very few kind words said about Philip Seymour Hoffman at my school. If he has been mentioned at all in the last few days, it is mostly in derisive tones. On Monday, the professor who teaches the English class I am taking wrote the word “synecdoche” on the board and asked who among us could define the term. It’s a literary device, he reminded us, snidely adding – practically rolling his eyes – “I don’t mean the town upstate. It’s not that movie with Philip Seymour Hoffman,” making reference to Synecdoche, New York. Some students in the class actually giggled, like when you’re in a movie theater and people laugh at dramatic/traumatic plot elements because they don’t know how else to respond to such uncomfortable situations and emotions. Really, though, you’d think that the class and our professor might have exercised a little more tact.

When we talk about Philip Seymour Hoffman’s legacy, it should be a discussion of how his roles have influenced the cinematic landscape in ways both subtle and distinct. Without realizing it, we have been witness to twenty-plus years of performances in probably nearly every genre of film. Scent of a Woman and Boogie Nights; Happiness and Almost Famous; Along Came Polly and Capote; Mission Impossible: III and Doubt; The Master and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. We took for granted that he would be around for decades to come, expanding upon that diverse and exciting résumé. Discussing drug addiction is one thing (and I do hope that this tragic loss encourages help and solutions for America’s heroin epidemic), but don’t forget or discard the great work done in Hoffman’s truncated career. The oeuvre remains, impactful as ever. In time I hope we are all able to move beyond the tabloid headlines and remember PSH for what he accomplished in acting, his contributions to the local Labyrinth Theater Company and his charitable work. As Nancy Sinatra, who donated $1,000 to Labyrinth, wrote: “Some people we’ve never met die and we aren’t really affected by the loss, while other people we haven’t met die and the loss destroys us. I can’t think of him or see a photo of him and not cry again. This is a tough one.”

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.