Monday, February 3, 2014

Philip Seymour Hoffman

I'll leave it to others to gossip about the 46-year-old actor's sad death. I'm here to celebrate his skill. Let's start with a clip from "Doubt," where both he and Meryl Streep earned Oscar nominations:




I first began to care deeply about Hoffman's work 14 years ago. He scored in a double-bill at the Toronto International Film Festival, playing egotistical, truth-telling rock critic Lester Bangs in "Almost Famous" and a conflicted screenwriter losing control of his script in "State and Main." I asked for an interview and was told he preferred not to give them: He wanted the work to speak for itself. That's often a euphemism for "You're a waste of my time" when you hear it from a big star, but I took it at face value in his case. (At any rate, he wasn't a big star yet.)

And his work did speak for itself. He was nominated for a Tony that year in a revival of Sam Shepard's "True West," where he alternated the leading roles with John C. Reilly. (Reilly was nominated, too.) He went on to earn four Oscar nominations over the next 13 years and Tony nominations for his other two forays onto Broadway, revivals of "Long Day's Journey Into Night" and "Death of a Salesman." He played Willy Loman when he was 44, surely the youngest person ever to take that role in a prominent production.

But Hoffman could always play younger. Or weirder. Or angrier or funnier or more sinister. In a generation of mere screen personalities and attention-grabbing eccentrics, he was one of the rare chameleons who could settle convincingly into almost any role. When he and Joaquin Phoenix combined in "The Master," two masters of their craft went head to head:



Hoffman won his only Oscar for "Capote," where he gave one of the most remarkable impressions of a celebrity I've ever seen. He was the wrong age and weight and height, yet he managed to make himself small and sharp and shrewd, and he caught Capote's constricted voice perfectly. Here's a sample:




Obviously, all the fame and money and awards didn't fill some hole in his life. I don't need to speculate about what was missing, though something was: After more than two decades of sobriety, he reportedly went back to drugs again last year and began his downward slide. The folks filming the second half of "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay" will have to work around his death, but Hollywood always finds a way to do that.

When he died, he was working on a TV series for Showtime, one written and directed by John Cameron Mitchell ("Hedwig and the Angry Inch"). It's in post-production now; he plays Thom Payne, a character named for the perennially dissatisfied spokesman for the American Revolution. Here's the synopsis from the Internet Movie Data Base:

"On his birthday, Thom Payne gets the gift of insignificance and also a new boss. He suspects his ED pills are interfering with his anti-depressants, leaving him with neither happiness nor... happiness. In a culture that reveres youth -- a culture he helped create -- Thom needs to figure out what his purpose is, now that he's halfway to death and nobody cares what he thinks."

Did the last days of his life imitate art? I have no idea. Will he be terrific in this role? You know he will.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

The man was so talented, it almost defies description. He had the ability to make the viewer forget what he looked like due to his ability to become someone else.

I remember him from Charlie Wilson's War. He was so ordinary looking, so nondescript, you just knew he worked for the CIA.

He was a once-in-a-generation talent. If he had been alive in 1940, he would have been Bogart.

par said...

Decent actor. However, really weird person.