I’ve indulged in an intensely passionate, consistently combative love affair with film since as long as I can remember. Film has taught me and hurt me. It’s built me up and beat me down. It’s acted as a blanket of comfort and a remembrance of regret. Actors are facilitators of my relationship with the film medium. They inspire us through their work. They make us laugh, they make us cry, they make us believe. But they also let us down. When one of our favorite actors delivers a bad performance, we take it personally. They can do better and What were they thinking are thrown around carelessly. And that is precisely why the recent passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman stings as bad as it does.
I loved a lot of the movies Hoffman was in. But, as is the case with all love affairs, I was occasionally indifferent toward some as well. Never mattered. Whether he was a nurse trying to bring Tom Cruise closer to his dying father, or an arms dealer trying to kill Tom Cruise and his girlfriend, there was a mystery to Hoffman, an unpredictable danger, that I found ceaselessly captivating.
Best examples? Take your pick. When I covered Hoffman in my In Character column a year and a half ago, I noted that one could essentially pick any five roles from his career and label them as his best. But for the sake of random nostalgia, I’ll choose the most recent Hoffman film I watched.
Two days before Hoffman’s death, I wrote a fun post about Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia on this site. In order to effectively write that post, I had to pay very particular attention to Magnolia. I examined every frame of the film, every facial twitch of the actors. I had never scrutinized that film, and Hoffman’s work in it, so closely before. During that viewing, the moment of the film that haunted me most was the scene where Hoffman’s Phil Parma gives Jason Robards’ Earl Partridge his morphine drops for the first time. Earl is a sick man, slowly withering away from cancer. Phil is one of the nurses hired to look after him. When Phil administers these particular drops for the first time, he knows damn well that there is no going back. The drops will lessen Earl’s pain considerably, but, as a result, they will put him in a stupor that he’ll never come out of. Watching this scene last week, I found myself in such a state of emotional pain. The tedious, gentle manner in which Phil considers giving Earl the drops is such a painful thing to watch. You can feel the torment in Phil’s slow movement. Once Phil has given Earl the drops, the camera cuts to Hoffman, eyes closed, face swollen, tears streaming. He’s done the right thing, but it still feels wrong. Either way, there’s no going back, and the torment of the moment is painted all over Hoffman’s conflicted face.
Other writers have, and will continue to, discuss their favorite Hoffman performances. Some will detail his scene stealing work in Almost Famous and The Big Lebowski, others will expand upon his flawless collaboration with Paul Thomas Anderson. Some will highlight his sterling work in indie gems like Love Liza and Owning Mahowny, others will discuss the strength he brought to commercial films like Mission: Impossible III and Red Dragon. The intensity he brought to Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead and Doubt will be juxtaposed with the subtlety he delivered in Capote and Synecdoche, New York. Many will call this role his best and that scene his career highlight. The uniquely tragic thing is, every single one of us will be right. There’s no wrong answer when asked what Philip Seymour Hoffman’s best performance is.
When you lose something you love, you grieve. Philip Seymour Hoffman was a part of something I love. He was a major influence on my appreciation for contemporary film, and I will miss him dearly. I’ll miss watching the way he was always on. I’ll miss knowing that he was the smartest guy in the room. I’ll miss the way he made us laugh. I’ll miss the way he made us cry. And, most importantly, I’ll miss the way he made us believe. Because after all, is there a greater gift an actor can bestow?