Feb 3, 2014

RIP Philip Seymour Hoffman [1967-2014]

When someone dies young there is always a sense of loss, in this case, with the death at just 46 of Philip Seymour Hoffman, it seems more acute than that, as if something has been taken from us, stolen away long before we wanted to relinquish it.  The loss to Hoffman's family; his partner and their three young children, is incalculable and my heart and sympathies go out to them, but this blog is about cinema and the loss that the art and craft of cinema suffered yesterday is devastating.

I am no fan of the way that, when a public figure dies, people suddenly come out of the woodwork to declare them a genius.  In the case of Hoffman, however, it's entirely appropriate because this contradiction of a man; unassuming but bearlike; so outwardly warm but apparently so inwardly troubled; character actor and movie star was, I say without fear of hyperbole or correction, the best character actor of his generation.

The first two films I really remember seeing Hoffman in I saw almost back to back when I was 18 and really getting into less mainstream films.  In Boogie Nights he's simply heartbreaking as Scotty J, an assistant on a porn movie crew who is in love with its star, Dirk Diggler.  The vulnerability that Hoffman conveys in this part and the way he seems to retreat into himself at every opportunity (sucking that pen attached to his clipboard) gives so much life to a character who, in any other movie, might just have been incidental.  Todd Solondz' Happiness also has Hoffman as a character defined by repressed sexuality, though in this case it manifests in a much nastier way with him making abusive and obscene phone calls to women.  While Scotty J is obviously pitiable, Hoffman also projects the sadness and loneliness that lies beneath the way Allen, his character in Happiness, behaves, allowing us to understand, if not sympathise with him.

Large framed and not traditionally good looking, Hoffman was never an obvious romantic lead, but for me one of his best and most underrated performances gave him the opportunity to be just that (among other things).  In David Mamet's gently biting Hollywood satire State and Main Hoffman plays a playwright adapting his own work for a movie and, while doing rewrites on set, falls for a local bookshop owner played by Rebecca Pidgeon.  It's a beautifully written and played relationship and a side of Hoffman that we didn't often see on screen.  I wonder if this is the part that was actually closest to the real Hoffman; a reticent but ultimately charming man who loved theatre.  Certainly he plays it with great ease and naturalism, not that that was unusual for him.

Scrolling down Hoffman's IMDB page and looking at his credits you find an embarrassment of riches, not merely the rightly acclaimed work in the likes of Capote (for which he won his Oscar), Magnolia (one of the best portraits of a simply good person I've seen on screen) Doubt and The Master but small gems like his memorable cameo in Punch Drunk Love, his sage-like Lester Bangs in Almost Famous or his imposing blockbuster villain in Mission:Impossible III.  What strikes me so much is the range and the transformation between roles.  Looking at Hoffman's filmography is now a double-edged sword; it's a reminder of his talent, a reminder that in a way we'll always have that talent, but also it's a reminder of the loss, it taunts us with what might have been.  At 46 Hoffman would still have had many great roles in front of him both on screen and on stage and now those are gone, snatched away by drugs.  

Some have said that Hoffman's death is his own fault (one particularly callous reader comment on a British newspaper's website even said another addict gone, good riddance), but frankly those who don't understand how people - even successful people - become hooked on drugs understand neither people nor drugs.  I don't want to get into a big discussion about drugs or a blame game, except to say that it's terrible what drugs have taken from us over the years and I wish Hoffman could have been helped and that anyone in his situation will find help.

Some years back I read an article by William Goldman asking where we leave film actors after they are gone.  What's the image, the moment, we turn to in our imaginations when we think of them?  With Philip Seymour Hoffman I'll have two.  The first is crushing.  In Before The Devil Knows You're Dead (for my money perhaps Hoffman's greatest and most underrated performance) after his wife has left him Hoffman's character slowly, methodically, destroys his apartment; dismantling his stuff and, metaphorically, his life.  Viewed in the wake of his death it seems horribly apt, but it was just as heartbreaking and just as powerful the first moment I saw it, all the more so for its slow, mournful, nature.  Ultimately though the place I will, with a heavy heart, leave Philip Seymour Hoffman is in Almost Famous, as Lester Bangs tells a young journalist "The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone else when we're uncool".  I think that's a line that resonates with every movie nerd I know, it certainly does with me. 

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