Tuesday, February 4, 2014

R.I.P. Philip Seymour Hoffman (plus, my 10 favorite Hoffman performances)

Philip Seymour Hoffman died yesterday at the age of 46. This is a tragedy. I say this, of course, at something of a distance—I never met the man, and I cannot pretend that the pain I feel at his passing can compare to that experienced by his family and friends, as well as the industry that knew and embraced him as an astonishing talent. Yet I am confident in stating that Hoffman's death is a blow not only to those who knew him but to those who watched him. Thousands of fans in cinema, whether they be mainstream moviegoers or art-house cinephiles, have been deprived of a truly gifted artist, and I mourn Hoffman's death both for the incredible actor he was and for the actor he never grew to be. I am a greedy, selfish movie fan, and it grieves me that I won't be able to witness Hoffman's career as it unfolds into his late period, to see how he adjusts and flourishes with age. I shudder to imagine the dozens of insular, nuanced performances he will never be able to provide. It wasn't supposed to end like this.

But end it has. For the record, I'm not particularly interested in how it ended, and so I'll leave the particulars of Hoffman's death to the police and the gossipmongers. I do hope that the circumstances of his death, however sordid and disturbing they may turn out to be, do not retroactively inform our opinions and analysis of his work. Hoffman specialized in playing troubled characters, but while it's tempting to impute an actor's personal life to his professional temperament—to suggest that his screen persona of soulful weariness and haunted undertones stemmed from real-life torments, rather than mere talent or technique—it is also profoundly dangerous and irresponsible. It may be that Hoffman drew on his own experiences to inform and enrich his portrayals, but insinuating such a causal link discredits the rigor and commitment he brought to his craft. As such, when evaluating Hoffman's work, I look at what I saw on the screen, and what I saw was a very good actor. Now, that very good actor is gone.

But rather than dwelling on what we've lost, I thought I'd focus on what we gained. And so, what follows is one critic's list of the 10 best performances of Hoffman's career. This is something of a fool's errand; Hoffman leaves behind a rich body of extraordinarily versatile work that blurred the line between character actor and movie star, and he brought ample texture and depth to virtually every one of his roles, whether in a big-budget blockbuster or a little-seen indie. To reduce such a distinguished career to a meager 10 credits seems almost cruel. But consider this a simple starting point, a subset worthy of further exploration. Philip Seymour Hoffman was one of our greatest actors, and with each performance, he plumbed the depths of his characters, slipping effortlessly into roles of queasy ugliness and locating the defiant humanity buried beneath. Here are my 10 favorites:

10. Phil Parma in Magnolia (1999). Physically, Hoffman was a heavyset man, and he was prone to playing heavies on the screen. But as capable as he was of surrounding his characters with dark storm clouds, he was equally accomplished in conveying gentleness and compassion. Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia is populated by misanthropes and deviants of every sort, but as a nurse caring for a dying man, Hoffman embodies the picture's hidden spirit of optimism and grace. His phone conversation with a confused-but-patient customer service representative is a marvel of old-fashioned empathy, as he makes us hang breathlessly on every mundane word. It's a courageously quiet performance from an actor who never felt the need to call attention to himself.

9. Owen Davian in Mission: Impossible III (2006). I wasn't a huge fan of J.J. Abrams' entry in the Mission: Impossible franchise, but Hoffman's performance as a deliriously nefarious megalomaniac is the film's unquestioned high point. Although he'd previously excelled in sneakily sinister roles, this was Hoffman's first opportunity to play a real villain, and he clearly has fun with the part. But he also imbues Davian with a palpable menace, and in a scene where he's threatening Tom Cruise, there's the unmistakable sense that he isn't kidding around. Proving that he never calibrated his effort relative to the project's level of prestige (speaking of blockbusters, he was subtly effective in last year's The Hunger Games: Catching Fire), Hoffman illustrates how even the most refined character actors can evoke pure evil when called upon.

8. Caden Cotard in Synecdoche, New York (2008). For the most part, Hoffman worked in nominally supporting roles, preferring to elevate movies rather than carry them on his own. With Synecdoche, New York, however, Hoffman established his leading-man credentials. Charlie Kaufman's lone directorial effort is flagrantly undisciplined—it has moments of insane brilliance but is mostly just insane—but it would have crumbled completely without Hoffman's resolute presence at its center; his uncanny ability to evoke the Everyman serves as a critical ballast to the sheer lunacy of Kaufman's narrative. Hoffman initially plays Caden Cotard as a nebbishy schlub, but as the movie transforms from ordinary to operatic, so too does Hoffman's performance, as he somehow externalizes the existential traumas and identity crises that plague his anguished hero. The movie doesn't make a lick of sense, but Hoffman's quiet desperation and heartfelt yearning keep you watching.

7. Freddie Miles in The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999). Perhaps the quintessential Philip Seymour Hoffman role, Freddie Miles is calculating, callous, and often just plain mean. He is also a ton of fun to be around, and Hoffman's portrayal injects Anthony Minghella's underrated psychological thriller with lively and unpredictable bounce. He quickly recognizes Matt Damon's sycophant for what he is, but Freddie always seems to be operating with his own unspoken (but unquestionably immoral) agenda. The performance also demonstrates Hoffman's masterful technique with line readings; his deliberate delivery of the phrase, "The only thing that looks like Dickie ... is you," sends chills shooting up the audience's collective spine. The Talented Mr. Ripley traffics in the seedy underbelly of crime and noir, and Hoffman is the perfect vessel for such a tone, as his very presence on the screen suggests coiled malevolence and diabolical intrigue.

6. Lester Bangs in Almost Famous (2000). Hoffman has precious little screen time in Cameron Crowe's coming-of-age opus, but he makes his minutes count, crafting perhaps the definitive portrayal of the snobbish critic (John Cusack in High Fidelity might beg to differ) who's both obsessed with and disgusted by the field of entertainment he covers. To young William Miller, Lester Bangs is a journalism god, so it's somewhat alarming when Lester derisively informs him that he's arrived just in time for rock-and-roll's "death rattle". Yet Hoffman exhibits true ardor for music, such as in an early scene where he jubilantly compares The Doors to The Guess Who. (His verdict: Jim Morrison is "a drunken buffoon posing as a poet", whereas The Guess Who "have the courage to be drunken buffoons, which makes them poetic".) But the real power of Hoffman's performance comes later, when he ruthlessly but compassionately lays out the rules of social comportment between critics and their star subjects. It's a beautiful, stunningly tender moment, and it reminds us that Hoffman could create characters with deep reserves of human empathy. Lester Bangs was proudly uncool, and for a legion of uncool teenagers, Hoffman's performance instilled something that felt an awful lot like pride.

5. Truman Capote in Capote (2005). Hoffman, of course, won his lone Oscar for his transformation into the pint-sized author of In Cold Blood. That transformation can't be undersold, especially vocally; somehow, Hoffman impossibly alters his rumbling, sonorous voice into Capote's elfin squawk. But while Hoffman's imitation is undeniably commendable, it's his immersion that's truly memorable. He disappears into the part, inhabiting not only Capote's intelligence and doggedness, but also his suffocating isolation, his self-absorption, and, on occasion, his withering cruelty. As portrayed by Hoffman, Truman Capote is not a particularly nice man, and Hoffman's steadfast refusal to sentimentalize him makes him an especially compelling protagonist. Initial skepticism of Hoffman's casting may have been warranted, given the sheer difference in size between the two men, but in playing an artist singularly committed to his work, Hoffman easily proved himself to be the logical choice.

4. Joseph Turner White in State and Main (2000). In acting, villainy tends to be easy, but decency can be downright hard. A milquetoast writer floundering in David Mamet's lacerating showbiz satire, Joseph Turner White is unquestionably the nicest character in Hoffman's filmography. Yet Hoffman somehow turns him into a fully realized creation, an eager artist who is resolutely romantic and winningly naïve. It's a deceptively brilliant comedic performance, one in which Hoffman's pained facial expressions and stammering delivery beautifully underplay the absurdity of the proceedings taking place around him. But it's his aw-shucks romance with Rebecca Pidgeon that really charms. The coupling between a gun-for-hire screenwriter and the small-town girl he meets on set could have played as farce, but instead it's completely, marvelously sincere. Being a David Mamet film, State and Main has more than its share of disreputable individuals, but it's Hoffman's bumbling, straitlaced boob who proves to be the unqualified hero.

Rebecca Pidgeon and Philip Seymour Hoffman in "State and Main"

3. Lancaster Dodd in The Master (2012). The apotheosis of his work with Paul Thomas Anderson, Hoffman's performance in The Master is frighteningly complex, and replete with infinite degrees of shading. As an L. Ron Hubbard clone, Lancaster Dodd is vicious, manipulative, and incomparably vain. He is also charming, benevolent, and heartbreakingly sad. The Master is above all a story of power, and of one man's relentless efforts to bend another to his will. Yet Hoffman plays Dodd as a totalitarian figure who's less deplorable than pitiful, a man who seeks to dominate all people because he doesn't know how to love another person. Dodd possesses both a public and a private face, but that notion of simple duality belies the many layers that comprise such a multi-faceted portrayal. It's a rich tapestry of a performance, one whose final threads are woven in an a cappella rendition of Frank Loesser's "On a Slow Boat to China", which doubles as the most emotionally naked acting of Hoffman's career. Hoffman appeared in five of Anderson's six movies, and while it's devastating to think of what else they could have accomplished together, it's gratifying that they bestowed upon us this small gift.

2. Andy in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007). If The Master illustrated Hoffman's gift for articulating suppressed emotion, Sidney Lumet's dark-crime melodrama showcases his instincts for spewing unbridled rage. But while Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is most memorable for its chaotically violent final passages, it begins in a period of relative stasis, when Hoffman plays a somber drug addict who's crippled by both financial failure and emotional impotence. Andy is undeniably pathetic (he isn't even provided with a surname), but he camouflages his helplessness with scorn, and as he slings caustic verbal abuse at his younger brother, Hoffman suggests a man whose anger and lust for power derive from deep-seated insecurity. At times, the performance functions as a remarkable amalgam of his prior work, from the fire-breathing venom of Mission: Impossible III to the grisly self-loathing of Capote to the emotional taunting of The Talented Mr. Ripley. Yet Andy is his own, deeply afflicted creature, and Hoffman makes him mesmerizing as well as terrifying. As his desperation mounts (not without cause), we get the sense that he'll do absolutely anything—and sacrifice absolutely anyone—to save himself. That Hoffman can make such abiding narcissism riveting rather than revolting speaks to just how deeply he commits himself to this wounded, rotted soul.

1. Jacob Elinsky in 25th Hour (2002). When people discuss Spike Lee's 25th Hour, they typically mention two scenes: Edward Norton's hate-filled "Fuck you!" monologue to himself in a bathroom mirror, and the closing fantasy sequence of running away and living the American dream. Those are terrific scenes, but frequently lost in the shuffle is Hoffman's shifty, agonizing portrayal of a high school teacher. At first, Elinsky appears to be a variation on a typical Hoffman type: a sullen but fundamentally decent man who simply yearns to be understood and loved. And indeed, for much of the film, Hoffman instills in Elinsky the same sense of quiet dignity that he brought to Phil Parma in Magnolia. It's this solemn suggestion of that ostensible dignity that makes Hoffman's scene in a nightclub with Anna Paquin—in which he unforgivably succumbs to a flash of temptation—utterly devastating. In the moment, the decision is evil, but Hoffman puts such heft and hesitation in his movements that he somehow reveals that his weakness derives from of a lifetime of derision and confusion; this added texture makes his repulsive decision almost defensible, which, in turn, only makes it more reprehensible. What's more, Hoffman doesn't let himself (or the audience) off easily, and as he glides down the stairs with a stricken look in his eye, we get the sense that this night will haunt him for the rest of his life. It's no more than he deserves, but in watching an actor of such astonishing subtlety and grace, it's more than we ever could have hoped for.

(And just because it broke my heart to leave them off, here are five more iconic performances worth remembering: Scotty J. in Boogie Nights; Gust Avrakotos in Charlie Wilson's War; Allen in Happiness; Dan Mahowny in Owning Mahowny; and Dean Trumbell in Punch-Drunk Love.)

That's my list. There are many more. Rest in peace, Philip Seymour Hoffman. You will be missed, but not forgotten.

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