Monday, February 3, 2014

Philip Seymour Hoffman: A Legend Lost

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.

Philip Seymour Hoffman didn’t let us down. He didn’t give bad performances. He didn’t make us question our appreciation for him, or our overall love for the art form. Instead, he performed.  Early in his career, he proved he could steal scenes with seemingly little effort. As his career (quickly) progressed, it became routine for Hoffman to be the best part of whatever film he was in. Yesterday on Twitter, a good friend of mine noted that no matter who was acting with Hoffman in a film, Hoffman always managed to be the smartest person in the room. Didn’t matter if he was playing a volatile mattress storeowner, a sexually confused boom operator, or a gas-huffing widow, when Hoffman was in camera, he was the one we paid attention to. He was the one we studied, constantly wondering My God, what is this force of nature going to do next.

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? 

48 comments:

  1. This is beautifully written my friend and it's a shame that the man it's dedicated will never have the opportunity to read it in this life. That last paragraph made me shed a tear. Perhaps the worst thing for us as fans of film and of this man's work is knowing not that he had continually delivered consistent and amazing performances but knowing that there won't be anymore. As you stated, each person will have his or her own personal favorite, but there's not a single role he's done that has been off. From Charlie Wilson's War to Twister to Boogie Nights to The Master to THG: Catching Fire, the list goes on and on. He was insanely watchable, always on top form, as you mentioned - the smartest person in the room, and easily one of the best performers of his generation (and certainly among the best of all time). He easily could have given us three, four, five, hell maybe even six more decades of amazing performances, but unfortunately we won't be able to find out what else he had to offer us. In addition to that PSH, in interviews I've seen with him prior to those at this year's Sundance, he seemed like a genuinely nice and humble guy who liked what he did. Beautifully written Alex, a fitting tribute to one of our greatest performers lost.

    Thoughts and prayers go out to this man's family.

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    1. Thanks man, I really appreciate you reading and saying such nice things about the post. You're right, one of the things that makes his passing so tragic is that we all know Hoffman was going to deliver decades more of classic performances.

      And yes, he did seem like a genuine and humble man. Everyone always had such nice things to say about it.

      Such a sad thing.

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  2. Why isn't there a "like" button on your posts? Because when I go to your blog and read a post, I never regret doing so.

    And I too love Hoffman *sniffs*

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    1. You know, I never could figure out how to implement that Like button. But either way, I really appreciate you stopping by and reading the post. Means a lot.

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  3. Thank you, Alex. Thank you for always writing vulnerably and from the heart. Philip really WAS every character he ever played, an extremely complex person. Though he partied hard in college he impressed us all by acknowledging his problem and getting help. From the time his career really started he was always a consummate professional.


    There really wasn't anything he didn't do well....he was mesmerizing, a true genius. It breaks my heart to think he is no longer here. I look at my 5-year-old daughter and can't help but cry thinking about his 5-year-old daughter (and other children) who will have to grow up without him.


    We hadn't seen each other in years but I loved that he was only a movie away--and such wonderful choices. There will probably never be answers to all of the questions we have....maybe it was the one thing he couldn't do. Just wish he had known how much he was loved and appreciated both personally and professionally....and wish that that would have been enough.

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    1. Thanks so much for this comment, Dawn. It really means a lot to me that you appreciate the post, considering that you actually knew him. To write something like this, no matter how it turns out, always feels like such a futile exercise. Basically, I just wish I never had to write this post, you know? Hoffman is a giant of his craft that will always be remembered. I only wish we had more decades to observe his new roles.

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  4. An ancient king once said, "Build thy memorial in the love of thee." It is in keeping a person and name alive in our hearts and memories that we show our love for them.....It might not always feel that way but there's nothing less futile.

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    1. Leave it to you to be the voice of reason and understanding :)

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  5. What a beautiful post. I still can't quite believe it - I honestly don't think a death of an actor has ever hit me so hard. Philip was one of the family, the one you could always rely on. It seems strange that we won't be seeing any more of him.

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    1. Thanks Stevee. His passing hit me really hard as well. I'm still in shock. Such an odd thing to know we won't see any more new roles from him.

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  6. I'm still in disbelief over his death as I wrote a list of his 10 greatest performances last year. I want to write a tribute I feel like this list is enough. What else is there to say? I have never seen him do a bad performance. I'm really bummed that he's gone. I hope PT Anderson gives him a fitting tribute for the new film as it's clear that Hoffman and Anderson is already one of the great actor-director collaborations ever with no blemish in that mark.

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    1. I remember that list of yours. That's a great list. I agree... what else is there to say? I'm very bummed as well. And yeah, the PSH/PTA collaboration will be forever remembered as a great one.

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    2. I just checked Jena Malone's twitter as she posted this on her Instagram: http://instagram.com/p/j-oVBBIhZ3/

      That shit is beautiful.

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    3. Very poignant. Very endearing. Just lovely.

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  7. Beautifully written. I'm depressed all over again.I still can't pick a favorite performance of his, but for some reason, I can't stop thinking about The Master.

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    1. Thanks so much for reading, Brittani. It is a damn depressing thing. How is it even possible to pick a favorite... he was so perfect in everything.

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  8. I'm telling you, Philip Seymour Hoffman may be gone, but this guy will never die. I mean this. His performances are so captivating and so f--king true to what it is to be alive, they are almost tangible.

    We have all lost a titan in an industry many of us undeniably love, but like you so eloquently put it AW, pick a performance, any single one, and the man truly lives on.

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    1. Well said, my friend. Well said. I fully agree: his work will certainly outlive us all. Rightfully so.

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  9. Lovely post, Alex.
    I don't think I realised how much I treasured PSH's performances till he was gone, which is a horrible way to find that out. But yes, like you, this is hitting me hard because he was part of something I love so much and he made all the films he was in so much better and the fact that we won't see more of his performances is awful.

    Roger Ebert apparently wanted PSH to play him in a movie if that ever happened. This makes me doubly sad.

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    1. Thanks Nik. I never knew that about Ebert wanting Hoffman to play him. That is so oddly tragic.

      And hey, it's never too late to realize you love an actor's work. I truly believe that.

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  10. Great post. Very nicely written.
    I also share your admiration for Phillip Seymour Hoffman and his genius in front of the camera or in the stage, where he excelled as well.
    It is a damn shame that great artists like him cannot seem to learn to live with their supreme intelligence, talent and inner demons.
    He will be missed. One of the most consistent and best actors of his generation.

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    1. Thanks, I appreciate that. I would've loved to have seen him on stage. I hear his Willy Loman was otherworldly. Surely one of the best performers there ever was.

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  11. Lovely post, the world has lost an amazing actor.

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    1. Thanks man. Yep, an amazing one indeed.

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  12. Nicely said Mr. Withrow. I agree that it didnt matter what part he played. Mr. Hoffman was the smartest guy in the room. Even when he played Dusty in Twister. He was still smarter then a lot of the characters in that. Im sad that he died, but am very happy he left behind a lot of good movies to watch.

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    1. Thanks Jason. You're right, even in a movie like Twister, he was able to assert his unique presence. And while I am so very sad that he is gone, the work he left us will last forever.

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  13. It's easy to take an actor of Hoffman's caliber for granted. Looking back on his career, I rediscovered so many great roles. He delivered the kinds of performances that don't call attention to themselves (well, except for The Master and Capote, where the characters called for it). Hoffman was a true, old-fashioned character actor and his presence on screen will be sorely missed.

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    1. So true. He never called attention to the acting of his performances. He simply wanted to maintain the illusion of being there. A very difficult skill, but one he exercised regularly.

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  14. Incredible piece of writing, Alex. You capture so perfectly why we love cinema and the work of the actors that bring these characters to life. I totally agree that in this current crop of Hollywood performers Hoffman was one of the best. His passing is very sad - a talent lost far too soon.

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    1. Thanks Dan, I really appreciate that. So sad that he's gone. I still can't believe it.

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  15. One of the best example of his acting ability, in my opinion, is his performance in Along Came Polly.

    This scene in particular: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4b51LIPX5C4

    "LET IT RAIN!", "RAIN DANCE!", "Timeout! My legs are burning.", "Mathletes don't where body art like that, 'nuff said."

    So, so funny and so, so good.

    If you continue watching that scene until the end you realize how much better he was than he needed to be, or should have been in that movie. In that scene he was dealing with bad writing, a boring character to work with, and uninspired extras, and he made it great. Who knows if those lines were even in the script? I think that it was just supposed to be a basketball scene with a conversation and then a short game and a sweaty belly gag at the end. It had no right to be as good as it was, but Hoffman made it so.

    The day before he died I was having a conversation with someone about our favourite actors. I said that Hoffman might be my favorite actor working today. I'm not just saying this because he passed away, but I think that he may have been the most talented actor working today. He was certainly in the mix at least with others such as Daniel Day-Lewis and Joaquin Phoenix.

    I think his greatest performance was in The Master, in which he wasn't even nominated because of the whole scientology controversy. That character should have been impossible to play, but he made it look easy. The audience had to believe that his followers believed what he was saying, but at the same time know that he was completely making everything up as he went along. Perhaps my favorite scene in the film (besides the processing scene, maybe) is his wedding speech just after his daughter gets married. The one with the story about the dragon. The reason I think it's so great is because even though the audience knows what he is saying means absolutely nothing to anyone, including himself, his followers still clap and laugh like what he had just said was so clever and inspiring. How do you act towards two different audiences like that, and do it so convincingly? I have no idea, and there are very few actors in the world who do.

    And now, unfortunately, there is one less.

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    1. Hey Will, thanks for drawing attention to his hilarious work in Along Came Polly. I seriously love him in that movie. He is the reason I consider that a rather rewatchable romcom, as opposed to a disposal one.

      He is sensational in The Master. It could very well be remembered and lauded as the finest work of his career. What a powerful achievement that was. But just a reminder, he was nominated for an Oscar for that performance. Rightfully so.

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    2. Oh, right. I forgot that he was. I must have been thinking about the fact that the movie itself wasn't nominated for best picture. It was my personal best picture that year and it's my favorite movie of the 2010's so far, so I consider that one of the biggest Oscar snubs in years.

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    3. Oh I'm right there with you... it's lack of a Best Picture nomination was ridiculous. But you're right, a little too controversial, a little too "off" from what most people were expecting from a PTA flick. Still, a flawless film.

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  16. Loving tribute, Alex. Your thoughts on "Magnolia" are so beautiful and pair perfectly with that closing paragraph, that idea that he was always on. He considered EVERYTHING he did in a performance, didn't he? Sometimes I think the criticism "phoning it in" is overused or wrongheaded but, nevertheless, Hoffman never phoned it in. He gave it his all. Anything less than his best would sacrifice the gift.

    Now I'm getting sad again.

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    1. Thanks Nick, and man, that sudden sadness... keeps hitting me too. So sad that he's gone. Really appreciate your kind words about the post. PSH certainly was one of the most intelligent, gifted actors we had.

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  17. Horrible. That's horrible. I was so sad when I read the news... Knowing that I'll never delight on another performance of his... It hurts so much.
    This is one of the saddest losses in cinema we've had in a long time.

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    1. (sigh) It certainly is. Such a sad loss. I still haven't even begun to accept it yet.

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  18. Beautiful write-up man. It's a terrible loss. I don't think I ever realized just how much I admired his work until now. Like you said, he didn't give bad performances. His performance in Magnolia (so glad you highlighted it) might be his best, but it's almost impossible to narrow it down to just one.

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    1. Thanks buddy. He will be sorely, sorely missed. It's interesting, I just read an old article on him in which he said his Magnolia character was the film character that most resembled his real self. He said he "acted" very little in that film. Interesting. So sad he's gone.

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  19. The PSH role that commanded my unending respect from there on after, was in 'Happiness', a movie NOT for the feint of heart. It took a lot of guts for him to play that role, and he played it like he had nothing to lose. Also his part in 'Before the Devil Knows Your Dead' is bone chilling. But I recommend a bit of a wait before watching both movies until the sting of his passing subsides, especially BTDKYD, because it hits a little close to reality. I want to watch Boogie Nights again and Capote. PSH knew how to fill up the screen, he demanded full attention. So sad he had to go that way, way too early. I think being an actor must be a lot more stressful than the public realizes.

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    1. He's so good in Happiness and BTDKYD, and for very different reasons. I still consider BTDKYD his best performance. So much anger and vile and hatred. What a twisted man.

      I think being in the public eye is damn difficult too. Such a sad loss.

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  20. Very nice blog you have here, by the way :) I'm looking forward to exploring it a bit more and reading future posts.

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    1. Thanks Kelly, I really appreciate you stopping by and commenting. Cheers!

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  21. It's been a week now and I still can't believe what happened. And like any sensible cinephile following the death of a prominent name in Hollywood, I re-watched one of Hoffman's films the evening of his passing. I opted for Capote and I was reminded of how great he was in it. It also dawned on me that he wasn't just playing Truman Capote; he was Truman Capote.

    And then there was the two performances he delivered in 2012: Willy Loman and Lancaster Dodd, both of which I easily claimed as Hoffman's best. Those two roles showed how intense he can get for a performance. They also showed that with Hoffman's passing, we lost one of the most provocative actors Hollywood has ever seen.

    Great piece, Alex.

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    1. That's so great that you got to see him as Willy Loman. That's a performance I should've headed to NYC to catch.

      Thanks so much for this comment, Anna. I still can't believe it happened either. So sad. So soon.

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  22. This is a beautiful tribute, Alex. I still can't believe he's gone.

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    1. Thanks Eric, I really appreciate that. I can't believe it either.

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