Actor's Retrospective, Almost Famous, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, Bennett Miller, Boogie Nights, Cameron Crowe, George Clooney, Hard Eight, Magnolia, Moneyball, Paul Thomas Anderson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Punch-Drunk Love, Sidney Lumet, The Big Lebowski, The Coen Brothers, The Ides of March
For my friends Joe & Josh, and also Philip, though I never knew you
On Sunday morning, I woke worrying about several issues in my own life, primarily those dealing with my immediate and near future goals as an actor, artist, and post-graduate. I decided to take my mind off things by scrolling through facebook, checking my email, and visiting my favorite websites (pertaining to film, of course). Shortly after I began rummaging through the internet, my phone went off. One of my best friends had just texted me that the Wall Street Journal was reporting that police had found the body of Philip Seymour Hoffman. In a state of shock, I immediately scrambled to find the article online, and saw that, so far, the Wall Street Journal was the only media outlet reporting said find. I then texted my friend back, expressing that I hoped it wasn’t true, that it was maybe just a hoax. We continued to text back and forth until there’s was no denying it any longer, it had exploded everywhere, and to add to the punch, facebook listed the topic as trending on my home page. I didn’t know how to respond. It had all happened so fast. Everyone was posting their feelings left and right, but the words weren’t coming to me. I was just sitting there watching it play out in front of me. He was a performer and artist I deeply respected and admired, a man of limitless and effortless talent, and now he was gone. My worries from earlier seemed meaningless.
The talents of our favorite performers and celebrities are often taken for granted. We admire them, we write about them, we talk them up to friends, and we anticipate their next project or creation or album or performance. And we always expect there will be more, or at least we hope there will be. I had been eagerly anticipating what Philip Seymour Hoffman would astound us with next, as he had many times before. I’m sure many of us were. As I sat alone, waiting in the car on Sunday afternoon, the radio on but forgotten, that thought kept racing through my mind. I had believed Hoffman would have many more complex performances to share with us. I had predicted that much respect and many accolades would continue to be bestowed upon him, including several more Oscars. I had hoped I would maybe have the opportunity to be in awe of him live in performance. And so suddenly, everything I had believed, predicted, and hoped for vanished. It was a sad moment, made worse by how selfish I realized I was being. I felt the world had been robbed of a truly magnetic and magnificent presence in my two places of worship, the theatre and the cinema, but I was forgetting the man. The amazing, fascinating man who had blessed us all with so much honesty and complexity and truth in a brief, but wondrous time.
As I’ve tried to gather my feelings on his recent passing, there’s one thing that has gnawed at me over the past week. Amongst the overwhelming wave of beautiful memorials from his friends, colleagues, and fellow artists, there are those who feel a need to focus to what they feel is the real issue: drug use. The fact that Hoffman died in connection with heroin is horribly tragic. However, the need to make his death about substance abuse and addiction, I believe, is also horribly tragic. Yes, drug addiction is a pressing issue in our lives today, but it is one that, I think, we should always strive to combat as a society, not just when a particular celebrity passes away in connection with such abuse. Some have reacted with frustration, stating, “Why would he throw his life away? Why waste such talent?” Yet, we have no adequate perspective, no true insight through which we may judge or understand the choices Mr. Hoffman made, or Mr. Ledger, or Mr. Monteith, or countless others, both in their final hours and in every other hour of their lives. The only one who can truly understand Philip Seymour Hoffman’s choices is the man himself. To presume more than that, I feel, is an injustice to his memory. The best we can do is feel compassion for his family, his friends, and for anyone who may be suffering from an addiction. There is something truly wrong with our media and our society if it is our desire to focus on the negative, on the gruesome, on the destructive side to every story. I believe that defining the life of a man by his personal demons is an insult to the man and his spirit. We all have flaws, yes, that is what makes us human, but we also have so many gifts that we share with the world. Why must we bemoan and condemn his actions when we should really be taking time to celebrate his life, and the time he shared with all of us, whether in our homes, local cinemas, or auditoriums? That’s the Philip Seymour Hoffman I knew, the one whose performances spoke to me and challenged me, and I don’t presume to know more than that. That’s the Philip Seymour Hoffman I wish to celebrate.
As a performer, sometimes the greatest gift you can give to others, to an audience, is the gift of performance. It’s no exaggeration, then, to say that Hoffman’s gifts were abundant. As I go back and watch clips from all of his masterful performances, I’m struck by how present, how honest, how layered his work consistently is. He was an electric and magnetic presence onscreen, but he also brought out the best in those performing alongside him. He was the man who stood out in ensembles, and the one who helped hold them together. You could always count on Hoffman to bring his A-game, to fascinate, and to surprise you. He was alternately rough and vulnerable, he was funny and deeply tragic, and he was fierce and wounded. Hoffman embraced the duality and complexity of human nature with such incredible raw talent. He was certainly one of the greatest actors of his time, and he will always be remembered through his exceptional body of work and his masterful creations. Hoffman has such a wealth of performances to admire and discuss, but I will limit my examination to ten: the ten performances that speak to me the most. I do not claim to have seen all of his filmography, so if any particular films feel like omissions (Scent of a Woman, Happiness, Flawless, 25th Hour, Owning Mahowny, Mission Impossible III, Synecdoche New York, Mary and Max, Jack Goes Boating, A Late Quartet), it’s because I have yet to see them. Others, such as Patch Adams, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Cold Mountain, The Savages, and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, I have seen, but didn’t make the cut. His Oscar nominated turns in Doubt and Charlie Wilson’s War, as well as his Oscar winning performance in Capote, I chose to leave off because, while certainly astounding in their own right, they are easily notable and I would probably not be able to do them justice in a short paragraph. That being said, here are ten of my favorite Philip Seymour Hoffman performances:
Brandt in The Big Lebowski (1998)
The Coen brothers have an impeccable knack for creating fascinating side characters to flesh out the world of their films. However, without the right face, performer, and performance, it wouldn’t quite work. So it’s safe to say they have an impeccable casting director as well. Whoever cast Philip Seymour Hoffman as Mr. Lebowski’s butler, Brandt, should pat themselves on the back for such an inspired choice. Though he is in the film for only a few brief scenes, he says so much about who this man is in such a short amount of time. It’s easy to immediately recognize the immense pride he takes in his work as he shows off Mr. Lebowski’s various accolades and honors to the Dude, as well as the meticulousness with which he conducts himself, constantly readjusting his suit, or tie, or shirt. His line delivery of “first lady of the NATION” is enough to induce a fit of laughter. It would be easy for Jeff Bridges’ Dude to dominate his scenes opposite Hoffman, but they have a back-and-forth in that scene alone that is comedy gold, as the Dude constantly oversteps boundaries while Brandt tries to play catch-up, be accommodating, and mask his apparent frustration and discomfort. The most genius choices in this performance, however, are the laughs. It’s clear there is much going on beneath the surface of Brandt’s outer persona, but due to his lifestyle as a butler, he feels a need to cover up anything other than a welcoming face. Whenever something threatens to come bubbling up, it is instead expressed in a nervous laugh of the most unique nature, and each laugh builds upon the next. It’s a true testament to Hoffman’s craft that when Mr. Lebowski’s wife offers to suck the Dude’s cock for a thousand dollars, Brandt’s immediate explosion of laughter says everything you need to know about the character. Truly, he’s one of the Coen’s and Hoffman’s finest small creations.
Lester Bangs in Almost Famous (2000)
It’s hard to watch Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous and not feel like it is defined by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal of real life legendary music journalist Lester Bangs. Again, he has incredibly limited screen-time, but his mere presence in the life of young William Miller is at the very heart and core of the picture itself. It’s quite clear Miller admires and looks up to Bangs, but also that Bangs feels a connection with Miller and sees himself in this aspiring young journalist. From his early interactions with Miller, Hoffman lays the groundwork for everything to come, hinting at Bangs’ wounded past that he wishes to spare Miller of. The subtle choices Hoffman makes in his line deliveries are like a window into the life of a man who has been hurt enough by those he has admired and befriended that he refuses to let anyone else in. It isn’t until Miller has experienced it himself that the two men truly connect. The image of Bangs alone in his home surrounded by records is indicative of his character, but it’s his monologue on the nature of coolness and art that truly breaks the heart with its startling honesty. His throwaway admittance of “I’m always home, i’m uncool” is one that connects deeply with anyone who has felt the sting of being the one on the outside looking in. Bangs’ mentality of being honest and unmerciful in turn seems to be the perfect examination of Hoffman’s career work as well, work with which he consistently brought unflinching realism to deeply human characters. Of all of his performances, this one might just tug at my heartstrings the most.
Andy Hanson in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007)
Hoffman had the privilege to work with many esteemed and respected directors over the years, but none more so than the great Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Network) in his final outing as a director. Lumet was not just a master of tension, but also a master of performance. Yet, in an incredibly well-rounded cast (Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, Marisa Tomei), Hoffman always draws your attention. As the older brother of Hawke’s Hank, Hoffman’s Andy exerts his dominance easily on a verbal level, yet he also demonstrates his dominance physically by always towering over Hank as much as he can. Even a grip on the shoulder is one of dominance, not of comfort. It’s a tactic that betrays the weak, vulnerable, and envious being lying beneath his intimidating exterior. There’s a hint of self-loathing etched into Andy’s eyes that flashes when he watches himself making love in the mirror, or continues to feed his addiction to drugs. Nothing in his life has added up to what it should be, he muses, and he has never felt a part of it, like some third party watching it all play out without him. He is dominated by his fears, and tries to hide them by emasculating his brother and hurting those around him. When everything falls apart, Hoffman pulls back the curtain, and lets the frightened Andy take over. His scene in the backyard with Finney is a simple father/son dynamic master course in acting through the lens of two great performers, but it’s the scene following, where Andy loses it in his car, that carries with it a lifetime of frustration, pain, and anguish that can never be repaired or understood by those closest to him because he refuses to let them in. It’s a fascinating journey that peels back the layers until nothing is left but the scared little boy still harboring resentment for the stings of the past, and arguably, the present. It’s a performance that probably strikes deepest because of how truthfully it speaks to human nature.
Paul Zara in The Ides of March (2011)
George Clooney’s 2011 examination of political manipulation and scandal was arguably anything but subtle, especially coming a year before the 2012 election. However, in an ensemble of the current who’s who of present character actors and Hollywood elite, Hoffman’s work is the most subtle. As Paul Zara, senior campaign manager to presidential candidate Mike Morris (Clooney), Hoffman is the true moral backbone and voice of reason to everything going on around him. He is a man who is well respected and thought of by those who work for him, and for good reason. Paul is the one in a million man in politics who is unwilling to stab anyone in the back. There’s a weariness to Hoffman’s take on Paul, a man exhausted by the demands of a life in politics, but also a man whose experiences have taught him to be guarded against those whom he cannot trust. His relationship with Gosling’s junior campaign manager, Stephen Meyers, is at the heart of central arc of the film, one of mentor and apprentice, and based on mutual admiration. When Meyers informs Zara of his meeting with a rival campaign manager, you can completely register Paul’s disbelief and sorrow at being let down by someone he had respected just through Hoffman’s eyes. The path through politics has been one filled with such disappointments for Paul, which seems to make this particular one that much harder to shake. In a later scene with Meyers, Paul admits to leaking to the press about Meyers rendezvous with the opposition. It’s interesting primarily because Hoffman doesn’t choose to play the scene as Paul chewing Meyers out, but rather as a teacher explaining a hard lesson to a disobedient student. The friendship is certainly tainted, but it is still present. In that one scene, Hoffman sums up Paul in one simple sharing of a story, and he holds back the punch until he states that without loyalty in politics, you’re nothing. It’s a statement that carries with it all the experience and frustration of his work and life. When we see Paul again, there’s a release as he is set free from that life, and he walks away wounded, but with a future that seems much brighter in comparison.
Art Howe in Moneyball (2011)
Hoffman rejoined his Capote director, Bennett Miller, to play Oakland Athletics manager Art Howe in the same year as The Ides of March and, once more, brought exceptional specificity to a seemingly minor role. Moneyball is a film about challenging the nay-sayers of this world by trying something different. It’s truly remarkable how easily Hoffman slips into the uniform and persona of a major league baseball manager. His stoic manner immediately suggests knowledge, experience, and dominance. Howe, along with the scouts employed by the Athletics, represents everything that has come to be accepted about the way the game is and should be played. It’s clear from one of the first interactions between Beane and Howe that Howe is man who demands respect because of his skill and expertise that Beane just won’t show. There’s a set in stone way of operating as a team that Howe is experienced with, and when his way is challenged by Billy Beane’s new methods, he fights back in a passive-aggressive manner. Hoffman chooses to play Howe not as a combative antagonist, but as an unwavering stone wall of non-verbal defiance. His body language is consistently closed off, yet steadfast, suggesting that any criticism or feedback thrown his way might be heard, but never respected. He’s a man wounded by lack of respect and appreciation, and his demeanor suggest this isn’t the first time he has been pushed around, passed over, or forced to find a new job. It’s interesting that Hoffman subtly hints at this point, since the real Art Howe’s prior experience to managing Oakland had been inconsistent at best, always looking for the next job. However, it isn’t until Beane trades some key players in Howe’s lineup that Hoffman really shows true frustration and sorrow. In a brief scene, Howe journeys from shock to anger to despair as everything he’s come to understand and accept about the game falls apart in front of him. He sadly frowns and shakes his head, mumbling, “You’re killing this team.” It’s a small action that once again sums up everything you need to know about this particular character. Yet, there’s a journey to Howe, and his choice to put in Scott Hatteberg to hit at the end of an important game makes all the difference in the world. You can see the battle raging inside Howe as he questions whether it’s the right thing to do, even after the decision has been made. Howe’s shock and surprise as players rush past him to congratulate Hatteberg on his home-run is a moment of exquisite honesty that makes his journey all worthwhile.
Young Craps Player in Hard Eight (1996)
This might be the oddest pick of the whole countdown, but I feel it’s an important one for two reasons. The first, is that it was the first onscreen collaboration between Philip Seymour Hoffman and the great Paul Thomas Anderson. Both of them were astounding artists trying to show the world what they could do. The second, is that with literally only three short minutes in the whole film, he’s the one who stands out most when it’s over, and not just because of his ridiculous mullet. That’s really saying something, given the other more notable performers were John C. Reilly, Gwyneth Paltrow (both on the road to promising careers), Samuel L. Jackson (fresh off Pulp Fiction), and Philip Baker Hall. Those three minutes are his, and he positively owns them, commanding the screen. It’s the kind of performance that makes you sit up straight and go, “Who is that guy? He’s incredible!” It’s pure, no punches-pulled, unrestrained acting. There’s so much personality and character jammed into such a small amount of time, there’s a part of you that wishes the film would switch to follow his character instead, his interpretation is that rich. The way he rolls the dice, lights a cigarette, places his bet, or even strokes back his obscene mullet is all lively in it’s specificity. There’s even a short journey of conflict and guilt in the two seconds or so before he asks Philip Baker Hall to join him for a drink, but then shrugs it off with a laugh. It’s a rarity that performances this small can be this wholly rounded, and it signaled Hoffman was someone to watch. Look it up on youtube, it’s well worth the watch.
Scotty J. in Boogie Nights (1997)
One year later, Hoffman rejoined his Hard Eight director, Paul Thomas Anderson, for a minor role in the ensemble of Boogie Nights, a film examining the lives of those involved in the porn industry in the late 70s and early 80s. In a star-studded cast that featured the likes of Mark Wahlberg, Burt Reynolds, Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly, Don Cheadle, and William H. Macy, Hoffman once again carved his own little niche in the film. From the moment he walks into Jack Horner’s (Reynolds) pool party, you immediately recognize Scotty is an outsider. His body language suggests an overwhelming insecurity about his body, about his sexuality, and about his “uncoolness”. But as he locks his gaze on Dirk Diggler (Wahlberg), it’s apparent he will be tragically tied to him. It’s truly painful to see his face light up as Dirk talks to him, because we know it’s destined to be unrequited, and when Dirk walks away, there’s an immediate sadness that comes over Scotty. Never before and never since (that I’m aware of) has there been a performance from Hoffman so incredibly outwardly vulnerable. Most of Hoffman’s characters and performances have a hardened exterior to protect what lies beneath, but Scotty wears everything on his sleeve, though most of his costumes are sleeveless tank tops. It’s all there in his chewing of the pen from the clipboard, the way he carries himself, and his mimicry of Dirk. So obvious is his adoration and obsession with Dirk, you can see the tragedy coming a mile away. When Scotty wants to show Dirk his new car with only ten minutes left until the New Year, you know it won’t end well. A scene of joy and excitement turns so fast into one of sadness and regret. It’s like every wrongly perceived attraction from your life playing out before your eyes in crushing reality. Even more painful is Scotty’s familiar excuse of, “I’m really wasted,” as well as his admittance that he was planning to return the car if Dirk didn’t like it. As Scotty sits alone in his new car, rejected and ashamed, his self-loathing repetition of, “I’m a fucking idiot” is so uncomfortably honest, it’s hard to sit through. It’s a tragically real moment in a film filled with them.
Phil Parma in Magnolia (1999)
Two years after Boogie Nights, Paul Thomas Anderson decided to build another film around an ensemble cast, this time focusing primarily on the tragedy of our everyday lives, and, once again, created a particularly simple role with Hoffman in mind. Though Phil is yet another Hoffman character with an outer shell, it’s probably his most compassionate and empathetic role (at least that I’ve seen). Burdened by the impending death of the man he is charged with caring for Earl (Jason Robards) and unable to find common ground with or aid Earl’s young wife, Linda (Julianne Moore), he tries to make sense of everything going on around him by doing his job and being as genuinely caring as possible. When tasked with finding Earl’s estranged son, there’s a desperate energy that seems to drive Phil in his task, connected to his search for something that could bring meaning to a world he’s seen filled with chaos and sorrow. Though he is either constantly on the phone or opposite Robards for most of the film, he never fails to draw your eye and your attention. His dedication to his job and Earl are immediately apparent, but it isn’t until his composure cracks that we really understand Phil. There’s a beautiful moment where Moore’s Linda attempts to reconcile with Phil while pretty much admitting this is the last time she will see him, and as she walks away, the camera lingers on Hoffman as he tries to shake away the complex emotions that have been brewing inside of him for a long time. No words, just pure acting. Yet, it’s the long phone call that is truly the defining moment for Phil. As he pleads with someone to connect him with Earl’s son, he tells them this is like the scene in the movie where the father tries to reach his long-lost son, and that they have those scenes because he believes they are real. He finally says, “This is the scene of the movie where you help me out.” It’s such a simple line, but it means everything to Hoffman’s portrayal. A man who so driven by the needs of others is now in need of help for himself, to restore order and balance to things, to make things right. It’s a profound moment that’s relatable in it’s simple truth.
Dean Trumbell in Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
For his fourth film, and their fourth collaboration, Anderson decided to make a short romantic comedy, but one unlike any other. Though the film focuses primarily on Adam Sandler’s Barry Egan, Hoffman has an important part to play as Dean Trumbell. Trumbell is essentially a bully at heart, a man used to getting everything that he wants and desires from mere intimidation and disrespect. His nature dictates everything about him: the way he walks, the way he talks, the way he commands, or even the way he has his hair cut. He is generally dismissive of everyone and their suggestions, and completely self-absorbed. Of course, all bullies stem from their insecurities, and it isn’t until his exchange over the phone with Sandler’s Egan that it truly comes across why Trumbell is the way he is. Though initially aggressive and verbally abusive, he is incredibly taken aback when challenged. When Egan tells him to go fuck himself, it’s hilarious to see Trumbell struggle to come to grips with being spoken to in a manner like his own. Even more amusing is his statement of, “That wasn’t good. You’re dead.” He’s a bully because he is afraid of anyone who could legitimately challenge or confront him. When finally confronted by Egan face-to-face, Trumbell easily backs down from Egan’s confidence, because he recognizes he can’t intimidate him. However, in a last ditch attempt to exert his control, he attempts to emasculate Egan as he walks away, but when Egan begins to retaliate, Trumbell sheepishly runs away. Trumbell is one of the funniest little pieces of a truly eccentric film. (Oh, and check out his recreation of a real Mattress Man commercial outtake for additional laughs)
Lancaster Dodd in The Master (2012)
Anyone familiar with my previous countdown knows that Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master came out on top of my 2012 list. It’s a fascinating, remarkable film, an enigma of the animalistic side of human nature, anchored by powerhouse performances from two actors at the height of their careers. It’s a film worthy of an essay or a thesis paper, not just a paragraph. The title role of Lancaster Dodd was written with Hoffman in mind, even as the script was still in the process of creation. In a true selfless manner, Hoffman suggested that the story should be primarily about Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) instead. Though the film ended up with a focus on Phoenix, it is an arguable two-hander, as noted by the Venice Film Festival which awarded the Volpi Cup for Best Actor to both Phoenix and Hoffman. Freddie and Dodd, Phoenix and Hoffman, are like two immense forces of nature, both struggling to find meaning in a world that constantly perplexes them. While Freddie is certainly the more volatile and destructive of the two, Dodd is a character rich in his complexity. Rarely has the burden of genius and celebrity been portrayed so beautifully and realistically. Hoffman plays Dodd with charismatic charm, eloquent wisdom, and, to some, humble sincerity. Though a man of seeming wealth of knowledge and experience, he certainly has his share of personal demons. He sees in Freddie a true challenge, a fascinating curiosity, a potential project, and a kindred spirit. Freddie becomes alternately a source of frustrating anxiety and startling insight for Dodd, and his attachment to him grows through their interactions. Their relationship brings about the best and worst in each other, both the creative and the destructive, each feeding the other’s negative habits and flaws. Though Dodd is a confident and commanding presence, doubt and uncertainty plague him constantly, and he is ever at the mercy of his even more commanding wife (a compelling Amy Adams). When challenged and questioned, Dodd becomes incredibly defensive, a trait he finds shameful. When his ferocious anger is unleashed upon a man who questions his teachings, he eventually erupts, calling the man, “Pig fuck!” In the moments that follow, you can see the uncertainty and disgust with himself settle over Hoffman’s face, a true acknowledgement of the pain that accompanies perceived greatness. After a certain point, his writings and teachings are questioned by those who follow him, and his rage breaks forth once again as he realizes his creation is now beyond his control. In a film with so many brilliant moments, it is appropriate that the final interaction between Freddie and Dodd is the most powerful. Having reunited after Freddie runs away, the complexity of the emotions at play is beyond description. Dodd offers Freddie a choice, the choice to decide their futures. Both are horribly torn between what they desire and what they know is realistic. As forces of human nature, they must go their own way, destined to meet again in pure conflict and collective destruction. As they begin to part ways, Dodd serenades Freddie with the song “Slow Boat to China”. It’s a moment of heartbreak that couldn’t have been communicated in a more powerful way. As Hoffman sings, he communicates all that he cannot put into words through song. It’s a soul-baring moment like non-other in Hoffman’s exceptional and honest career in a masterful performance that lives up to it’s title.
And there you have it, ten of my favorite Philip Seymour Hoffman films and performances. As I’ve constructed this list over the past week, it has reminded me that the beautiful talent of his is not gone from this world, but ever present in spirit. His performances live on as a testament to his bravery and honesty as a performer, artist, and human being. Words escape me when I try to define the impact I feel he has had on film and performance over the course of his magnificent career, so I will end by saying this: I believe he was a man who sought to portray all his characters in an honest and unmerciful light, a manner to which all performers aspire, yet few achieve, and one that will continue to inspire and perplex us all for years and years to come. He will be missed, but never forgotten. Above all, Philip, thank you, Thank You, THANK YOU!
And here’s a chance for you to speak up: