Alice Through the Looking Glass
There is no magic, no wonder, just junk rehashed from a movie that was itself a rehash of Lewis Carroll, tricked out with physically unpersuasive…
Philip Seymour Hoffman has died at 46. It is a terrible loss for film and theater. Some of our writers share their thoughts. We'll add to this post as more writers contribute.
Chaz Ebert: Roger and I thought that Phillip Seymour Hoffman was one of the best actors of any era. He had a versatility and brilliance that caused Roger to suggest that if any actor was ever needed to portray him, it would be PSH. It is with a heavy heart that I post this appreciation of him by the writers at RogerEbert.com. I offer deep condolences and prayers to his family. And deepest sympathy to his mother, of whom Roger thought so highly.—Chaz Ebert
Nell Minow: "Next Stop Wonderland" is a terrific romantic comedy about a nurse. It has a lovely performance by Hope Davis and an sexy samba score. But as I watched it, I could not stop thinking about the actor who disappeared from the story just moments after it began, whose only job in the story was to break the nurse's heart and then leave town. I was so struck by the actor's ability to create a character so immediate, so vibrant, so memorable, with just his posture and tone, that I looked for his name in the movie's credits: Philip Seymour Hoffman. And I wanted to see him again, convinced that he could only be so good because he was so much like the obnoxious, self-important character he had played.
But then I saw him in "Boogie Nights," following Mark Wahlberg around like a lovesick middle-schooler, the pen in his mouth, the look of desperate longing in his eyes as he tried to keep the boom mic steady while he watched Wahlberg take his pants off. Once again, he created a fully real character who was funny and heartbreaking, and, this time, vulnerable as well. Then I saw him as a character with effortless confidence, as the silky snob in "The Talented Mr. Ripley," and began to understand the vastness of his range, the precision of his observation, and the subtlety of his performances.
There isn't a performance of his I think of as less than brilliant, from the big genre film "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" to the small, layered, film he directed and starred in, "Jack Goes Boating." It was nice to see him as a romantic lead in "State and Main." His Lester Bangs was a highlight of "Almost Famous" and he brought the same spirit of someone who has seen it all but cannot help loving rock to his role in "Pirate Radio." But I think my favorite will always be Gust Avrakotos in "Charlie Wilson's War," where he got to call on so much of what he did best: playing a smart guy frustrated by being condemned to work with people not smart enough to understand him but not willing to get out of his way. The scene where he first visits Charlie Wilson's Congressional office is a masterpiece of split-second timing and understated delivery that makes it funny, smart, tragic, and hopeful all at the same time. Maybe that was closer to who he really was.
Glenn Kenny: It's a devastating loss at a number of levels. Hoffman was not just a performer of incredible virtuosity but of unstoppable audacity. It's one reason he made such a superb match with Phoenix in "The Master." I don't know if the "Slow Boat To China" send off of Freddie Quell in "The Master" was solely writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson's idea, or came about through Anderson's collaboration with Hoffman, which I know was particularly close; but I don't think any other actor had the combination of skill and sheer openness to project what was needed to make that moment as heartbreaking as it was.
Christy Lemire: It's so telling that the reaction to Philip Seymour Hoffman's death on places like Twitter and Facebook has gone beyond shock and sadness to devastation—a deep, emotional feeling of loss. Of course, none of us knew him but we've all felt moved or provoked or wowed in general by his performances, and the wide swath of people reacting to his death speaks to his versatility and depth of talent. I tried to think of a favorite performance of his and it was impossible. They were all daring, thrilling, rich and full of surprises. When you saw Hoffman's name in the opening titles of a film, you never knew what you were in for, but you always knew it would be full of exciting, inspired choices. Calling his death a huge loss doesn't seem sufficient. And it's just so damn sad.
Peter Sobczynski: Like every actor with more than a handful of credits on IMDb, Philip Seymour Hoffman made the occasional clinker--there are few films in existence that are much worse than the indefensible "Patch Adams." However, even if the movies as a whole were duds, he never gave a dud performance as far as I can recall. To a certain extent, he was lucky because his talent usually ensured that he was working with top-shelf material and he rose to the occasion with indelible turns in films like "Magnolia," "Almost Famous," "Capote," "Synecdoche, New York" and "The Master," to name just a few of his most notable performances. However, even when he found himself involved in something slightly less auspicious, you never saw him simply going through the motions in exchange for a paycheck. For example, take a film like "Mission: Impossible III." It is not a particularly great movie for the most part but whenever Hoffman, who plays the bad guy, turns up, it suddenly comes alive. Instead of offering up the usual hambone theatrics one might expect to see from an actor struggling to be noticed amidst the explosions and whatnot, he brought a genuine sense of menace and danger to the proceedings that generally doesn't exist in popcorn nonsense of this sort. Basically, he was one of those actors whose name in the opening credits promised that things were going to get intriguing, if only during the scenes in which he appeared on the screen. Now with his tragic passing, that thrill is gone but based on the incredible body of work that he left behind, he will not be forgotten anytime soon.
Sheila O'Malley: Philip Seymour Hoffman could tap into rage, he could tap into despair, he could tap into the comedic possibilities in even the saddest moments. He could roll his eyes and an entire lifetime of history would be suggested in the gesture. He could transform his look, he could transform his walk and manner of talking, so that when you watch his filmography, you feel like you are actually meeting a bunch of separate individuals. Humphrey Bogart once said that good acting "was six feet back" in the eyes, and Hoffman worked that deep. But when I think of him today, on this sad day, I think of the sincere warmth and kindness and compassion that he brought to the role of Phil Parma, the hospice nurse caring for Jason Robards' Earl Partridge in "Magnolia". Phil might have been the most challenging role of all for Hoffman, because it required simplicity, openness, and warmth, and that's it. When Phil tries to get Frank Mackey (Tom Cruise) on the phone, his persistence, his desperation, his shyness in the face of the web of bureaucracy, brought us even deeper into who this man really was. Phil understands what is important in life, and Phil understands that family, however shattered, is important. There is no backstory for Phil, no opportunity for scenery chewing or explosive anger, things that actors, of course, love. What Hoffman had to bring to the table in "Magnolia", the only thing, was his caring heart. He did so without wanting to be congratulated or praised for it. It is a deeply selfless performance. He was a member of a chaotic ensemble, filled with characters much louder and more flamboyant than his, and he had to sit there, in scene after scene, still, listening, caring, healing. It's a mini-miracle, that performance, and it is a reminder that the best acting is often not the showiest, the loudest, the quirkiest, the darkest. The word "brave" is usually used to describe actors who make themselves ugly for roles, who disrobe, who portray the seedier sides of humanity. But showing an audience your heart? That's the bravest act of all.
Brian Tallerico: The fact that the loss of Philip Seymour Hoffman feels like losing someone close to such a wide array of people speaks to his incredible range. Who else could segue as seamlessly from comedy to drama; blockbuster to indie? Who could be one of the best things about mainstream fare like "Mission: Impossible III" and "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" but also have a loyal following for his work with Paul Thomas Anderson, David Mamet, Bennett Miller, and the Coen brothers? What so distinguished Hoffman was what seemed like an inability to "phone it in." Whether he was the lead or a minor character, he was committed to his craft in every scene, often making character decisions that lesser actors would never have even considered. Lester Bangs ("Almost Famous"), Scotty J ("Boogie Nights"), Phil Parma ("Magnolia"), Jacob Elinsky ("25th Hour"), Caden Cotard ("Synecdoche, New York"), and Lancaster Dodd ("The Master")—these aren’t just performances or characters, they are a part of the story of film in the last two decades. One of Hoffman’s most delicate, perfect, underrated performances came as voice work in "Mary and Max," in which his Max says, "He said I would have to accept myself, my warts and all, and that we don’t get to choose our warts. They are part of us and we have to live with them. We can, however, choose our friends, and I am glad I have chosen you." Hoffman felt like more of a friend than another actor. And I am glad he chose us.
Susan Wloszczyna: When I was still reviewing for USA TODAY back in the '90s, I kept seeing this one actor show up again and again, being completely different in each supporting role but so memorably terrific that he was like a bolt of lightning shooting forth from the projector each time. There hadn't been such a chameleon in films for ages. First "Scent of a Woman", then "Nobody's Fool", "Twister" and "Boogie Nights" in quick succession. Soon, Philip Seymour Hoffman truly began to dominate movies screens in 1998 and '99, when his all-too-apparent greatness was ridiculously ubiquitous: "Next Stop Wonderland", "The Big Lebowski", "Happiness", even in the awful "Patch Adams" and his first role as a lead (although not the best start) as a drag queen in "Flawless".
I had to beg my editors to let me do a major cover profile on him since it was readily apparent to me that this guy was going places. They reluctantly agreed and I first interviewed Hoffman in a cozy bar that he often patronized on Jane Street on a cold November day in the Village. My husband and I met him at the apartment where he was staying with friends and we walked there together while my husband sought out the Buffalo Bills game on a TV elsewhere. Turns out Phil was a Bills fan, too, a true sign of a survivor after we had endured so many Super Bowl losses. He spoke of his Rochester childhood—he especially looked up to his mom, a judge and lawyer who had raised four kids alone.
It was soon apparent he had more respect for the stage than the movies. He was deeply disappointed in me that I had chosen Chicago as my husband's first Broadway show instead of the more challenging revival of Cabaret directed by Sam Mendes. Hoffman was far from loquacious that day—he saved whatever intense emotions he harbored for the characters he played. So to beef up my story, I talked to the several of the directors who had hired him and often worshipped him, especially his good friend Paul Thomas Anderson, who allowed him to sleep in his apartment when they worked together. Anderson's only complaint about his roommate was that Hoffman often failed to empty his ashtrays.
That is how I managed to write the first major national profile on Hoffman. We talked several more times over the years including about "State and Main" at the Toronto film festival one year, and he truly seemed glad to see me again. Trying to get the guy to open up could be frustrating. We did a phoner for "Doubt", and he was so uncomfortable with my questions, he didn't say anything quotable.
The best interview I had with him, however, was for his 2010 debut as a film director, "Jack Goes Boating". Hoffman seemed to savor being able to discuss the process of being behind the camera. I asked him about the difference between directing a play and a movie: "With a play, it is more your fault since you have such a close inter-relationship with any decision, including the tech and design. Everyone is in one room, sitting next to each other. It is more intimate. With a film, you rely on so many others since you can't be every place at once. You have to trust and collaborate."
Although he was basically great in almost everything he did, even if the movie was of lesser quality, two of his least-seen films are near and dear to me: "Owning Mahoney" from 2003, in which he played a gambling addict, and "The Savages" from 2007, where he and Laura Linney shone as bickering adult siblings tending to their ailing father. Part of the reason for my being exceedingly fond of these titles is that both were shot in and around Western New York—where Hoffman and I both grew up. This too-soon death leaves such a gaping hole in the cinematic universe—it is Olivier-sized, Welles-sized, Brando-sized. We probably will never see another like him in our lifetime.
Wael Khairy: I remember the first film that made me recognize the great actor in Philip Seymour Hoffman. It was his magnificent turn in "25th Hour"; from then on, his career spiraled into that of a legend. In fact, when you look back at his career, you can tell he was bound to reach legendary status. With "Punch Drunk Love", "25th Hour", "Empire Falls", "The Savages", "Capote", "Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead", "Charlie Wilson’s War", "Doubt", "Synecdoche, New York", and "The Master" all released within a decade, I think it’s safe to say he was to the noughties what De Niro, Pacino, and Dustin Hoffman were to the '70s. The last film of his I saw was "Nobody’s Fool", and even though it was a very small role, it was a delight to see the young actor trying to make it big. His turn in "Pirate Radio" (a.k.a. "The Boat That Rocked") will forever be one of my favorite feel-good performances. When Hoffman laughed on screen, I laughed with him, and when he shed tears, so did I; he’s one of the few actors able to seamlessly transcend emotions beyond the screen. The range, complexity and depth he brought to the screen is unreal, and so is the sad news of his passing. This is a very sad day for moviegoers across the world. May he rest in peace.
Ali Arikan: Brave is an adjective that is often overused when describing a particular performance. "How brave that so and so has put on 40 lbs to play a role," or "isn't it so very brave the way such and such refuses to hide under heavy make-up?" These descriptions tend to be, for lack of a better word, bullshit. A brave performance is one where the actor spews out the truth as they interpret it, without any sort of industrial filter. Philip Seymour Hoffman was a brave performer in every sense. He gave his characters his all. To watch him at his peak in films like "The Master," or "Magnolia," or "Synecdoche, New York" was to experience a beautiful rawness. That honesty, as well as his amazing talent, allowed him to master a truly unbelievable range. He belongs in the pantheon of the greats.
Kevin B. Lee: This time last year, I made a video arguing for why Philip Seymour Hoffman should win an Oscar for his work in "The Master". A masterful performance that gradually reveals a self-help guru's own lack of self-mastery. Whatever his personal demons may have been, in this film Hoffman channelled them into a complex portrait of a man whose outward projections of charisma and control masked an inside that was all too human. If I had to pick one film to pick to represent his legacy as a screen actor, it's this one.
Pablo Villaça: The first time I took notice of Philip Seymour Hoffman, he was playing a spoiled rich brat whose arrogance was evidenced almost as subtext: on the surface, he was being nice to his humble schoolmate, telling him he "needed" to come skiing with the group, but his manners, his smile and even the way he looked at the boy showed a subtle hint of sadistic pleasure and contempt. He knew his mate had no financial means of accompanying him. That was 1992 and the film was "Scent of a Woman". Yes, Al Pacino was the whole picture and poor Chris O’Donnell was the lead, but when Hoffman was in the shot, it was difficult not to look at him and notice his careful portrayal that later on even included a complex sense of guilt for what he was making his ex-friend go through. At the end, I made sure to memorize Hoffman’s name when it showed in the credits. Reading about his death today, I was devastated. Hoffman was in his creative peak and possibly entering a phase in which fascinating roles would show up in his path–as if it wasn’t enough his fabulous performances in films like "The Master", "Synecdoche, New York", "Boogie Nights", "Magnolia", "Owning Mahowny", "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" and so many others. Dying so young is a tragedy. That death took someone so sensitive and so talented is something that needs a word not yet invented.
Matt Zoller Seitz: His voice may have been the key to whatever Phillip Seymour Hoffman ultimately was. As deployed by Hoffman in films for so many notable directors—including Paul Thomas Anderson, who seemed to understand him better than just about anyone—it was as ringing and multi-valent as a piano keyboard. It might have been packaged and sold as a Voice of Authority if Hoffman hadn't been so scrupulous in how he used it, and if his characters had not been, more often than not, untrustworthy, fraudulent or grievously wounded. In fact one through-line in Hoffman's career was a subtle or overt distrust of authority: political, familial, artistic.
His voice was emotional pretzel logic. His voice was anger placed where passion should have gone. His voice was regret. It was disappointment. It was yearning. It was bourbon and dying embers.
How many actors can you hear in your imagination as distinctly as if they were talking on a screen in front of you, right now, or sitting on a bus seat beside you, right now? Not many.
Phillip Seymour Hoffman was one.
[To read MZS's full obituary for Hoffman, click here.]
Seongyong Cho: I began to notice Philip Seymour Hoffman around 2000 since watching his kind, gentle performance in "Magnolia"(1999), and this talented actor has kept impressing me and other audiences through many stellar performances during last 14 years as he did in several notable supporting roles during his early film career. Although I did not notice him at that time, I remember well his unlikable character in "Scent of a Woman" (1992), as many of you do, and it was certainly a pleasure to discover him in small but substantial roles in his early films such as "Nobody’s Fool" (1994), "Boogie Nights"(1997), and "The Big Lebowski" (1998). Like Paul Giamatti, who happened to share one nice scene with him in "The Ides of March" (2011), Hoffman was a dependable character actor who left indelible impression on us through his characters while rarely drawing our attention to his efforts behind performances. While his Oscar-winning turn in "Capote" (2005) gave him a rare chance to go for more visible performance, he never lost subtle touches on his acting as giving us the complex portrayal of a brilliant writer who paid far more than imagined for his masterpiece, and he was simply a magnificent question mark to observe in "Doubt" (2008) and "The Master" (2012), in which he gave what will probably be remembered as the last great performance of his superlative career. Even in some thankless roles he happened to play, Hoffman found something interesting to watch for us, and he poignantly held the center of "Synecdoche, New York" (2008) as a sad, desperate, and regretful heart fading into darkness even though we still do not have any clear idea about its confused soul somewhere in the labyrinth of the film. It is really sad that he is no longer with us now, but he will remain as one of best actors of our time as before through many of his superb achievements to be remembered.
Anath White: Only 46. With so much still to do and offer. Very possibly, apart from the obvious, wonderful performances, my favorite may be in "Jack Goes Boating" (2010), which he also directed. Perhaps that choice indicates he felt a special kinship with the story and character? I was particularly taken by this awkard, "slumpy" fellow that few women might notice, and how Amy Ryan's character did. He reminded me of a dear friend, "Rocky Mountain News" writer and dramaturge Alan Dumas, who looked a lot like Philip Seymour Hoffman and died suddenly at a similar age (heart failure in his case). When I first met him, Dumas seemed the homeliest of men, but over time, with his exceptional heart and intellect, he became astonishingly attractive. Hoffman as Jack - and in his many other roles - was all that. R.I.P.
Omer Mozaffar: In every one of his films, he captures me with something. In "Scent of a Woman," it's the hands. In "Mission: Impossible III," it's the frown. In "Charlie Wilson's War," it's the posture. In "The Ides of March," it's the slouch. In "Moneyball," it's the silence. In "The Master," it's eyes. In "Capote," it's the hesitance. In "Doubt," it's the apprehension. Each character has that particular quality, that particular quirk, that amazes me. Such a talent. Such a loss.
Michał Oleszczyk: When every single turn by an actor is memorable, you know you're dealing with a star. As I scan Hoffman's filmography, images spring to my mind with unusual ease. I wish I had seen more of his early stuff (including his very early turn in a Polish movie called "Szuler" I missed), but it's fair to say he was a mainstay in my movie universe from "Hard Eight" on. So many great roles. And such a loss. It is probably "The Master" that contains the single shot that best captures Hoffman's power as a performer. As Joaquin Phoenix smashes his prison cell to smithereens, Hoffman simply stands by in his - brooding, immobile, captivating. The rabid action taking up the left half of the screen does little to draw our gaze away from Hoffman: that frozen heap of a human being, radiating depth the actor was so adept at tapping. He was often cast as artists and intellectuals: from the fey Truman Capote in a movie I disliked to the unhappy playwrights in "The Savages" and "Synecdoche, New York". He was electrifying as the heroin addict in "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead", but as prescient as this performance may seem today, it may well be that he gave us his best self-portrait in the underseen "A Late Quartet". There, he made you feel the gravity of everyday commitment to an artistic craft, often at the expense of one's private life. Hoffman was a great American artist and the movies will not be the same without him.
Scott Jordan Harris: There aren't many downsides to being a film journalist, but of those there are the worst is to be alerted at some unexpected moment to the news that one of the great talents you spend your life celebrating has ceased to be. For me, the news of Philip Seymour Hoffman's death came just after 1am in a text message from a friend. When a remarkable actor dies, my phone is usually flooded with messages from the movie critics and other film aficionados who make up much of my social circle. This first message came from someone who is one of my closest friends but who is not, by any measure, a movie buff. She has no DVD player and rarely goes to the movies, but she went to the movies to see Philip Seymour Hoffman. In fact, she said, "he was the only actor I’ve seen a movie for specifically because he was in it."
This, to me, is the great measure of Hoffman’s talent. His adoring audience ranged from professional critics to obsessive films fans to those who are only ever drawn into movie theaters by the promise of a performance so special they feel compelled to experience it. He added heft and intricate craft to the cast of blockbusters, and he illuminated art house films with astonishing feats of sustained virtuosity. He played small, withering personalities, as in "Boogie Nights" or “The Talented Mr Ripley”. He played enormous, overpowering personalities, as in "Capote" and "The Master". And he endowed both with a level of naturalistic detail and easy credibility that make his performances worthy not just of being seen but of being studied. "He conveyed complexity and made it look simple,” said my friend who watched movies purely because he was in them. "He owned every role to the point you entirely forgot he was acting."
My friend is right. I have no special insight into Philip Seymour Hoffman’s working method but I know he always worked as hard as, or harder than, other actors because, when we watched him, he never seemed to be working at all.
Jana Monji: Because I have spend an inordinate number of hours watching murder mysteries, how could I resist the 2005 biographical movie "Capote"? Philip Seymour Hoffman's performance as Truman Capote was chilling in its precision and subtle restlessness. I mostly remember Capote as the parody of himself in Neil Simon's 1976 murder mystery comedy "Murder by Death." Hoffman's portrayal draws a road map to Capote's early death at 59 (in 1984) from liver disease, phlebitis and drug usage. Hoffman was apparently even more self-destructive; he was only 46. I was more excited by the 2008 Charlie Kaufman movie, "Synecdoche, New York," which was a play within a play and the performance made me eager to see Hoffman on stage. After his third Tony nomination in 2012 for "Death of a Salesman," I thought that someday, Hoffman would make it to the stage of Los Angeles' Ahmanson Theatre, perhaps as the 63-year-old Willy Loman. I never considered that Hoffman might not live to be Loman's age.
Donald Liebenson: I have made a conscious effort since his passing to avoid any WWRW (What Would Roger Write) reveries, but I would dearly love to have access to his insight regarding Philip Seymour Hoffman’s passing. The shock of Hoffman's death, coupled with the unfolding news that heroin was involved prompted the usual thoughts and admonitions by one who has no clue what it is like to be in addiction's grip: Hoffman was an Oscar-winning actor; he was perhaps the most respected actor of his generation; he had children. One would think that last one would be reason enough not to use. Roger, a self-professed alcoholic, wrote openly about his own struggles with addiction, but some of his best and most memorable reviews were those for films that purported to deal with addiction and in which he infused his experience and hard-won wisdom on the subject. Perhaps Roger wouldn’t have been able to give me any answers, but at least he might be able to steer me to the right questions.
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...
Part two of Jana Monji's essay about the portrayal of Asian characters in cinema.
Separating the artist from the art isn't as easy as it sounds.