The House with a Clock in Its Walls
Black, more than anyone else, should have been the one to wind up The House with a Clock in Its Walls. Too bad he doesn't…
Philip Seymour Hoffman mattered.
When I think of him, I think of the song "My Funny Valentine," performed so memorably by his costar Matt Damon in "The Talented Mr. Ripley," one of the first of many pictures that the great actor stole whenever he appeared in it:
Is your figure less than Greek?
Is your mouth a little weak?
When you open it to speak
Are you smart?
He was not un-photographable; quite the contrary, he was magnetic, even in roles that gave him a handful of lines. But he was not a matinee idol and never pretended to be. In most of his roles he was heavy, round. His early parts often cast him as a big, soft man poured into clothes that didn't fit. He looked like an utterly ordinary fellow you might see in daily life, at a bus stop or in an electronics store or in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles, and not think twice about—unless, perhaps, you got a close look at his face, and sensed the lacerating and self-lacerating intelligence in his eyes and smile; or if you heard his rumbling voice. When Hoffman opened his mouth to speak, he sounded smart, but often not as as smart as his characters imagined or wished themselves to be. That sense of mis-estimation always added to the performance by connecting it to reality. We're never what we imagine ourselves to be. We're always a bit less—or a bit off.
He played conventionally "authoritative" heroes in a way that made you suspect their motives were less than pure, and conventionally "villainous" characters so that you sensed a kind of backwards-assed righteousness in their deceptions, a twisted sense of mission. (His titular character in "The Master" miraculously combined the two approaches, by turns demystifying and inflating a guru character; one wonders if the role was exciting at least partly because both Hoffman and Anderson were willing to let it be a comment on how directors turn themselves into characters, the better to inspire, manipulate and abuse their actors.)
His voice may have been the key to whatever Phillip Seymour Hoffman ultimately was. As deployed by Hoffman in films for many notable directors—including Paul Thomas Anderson, who seemed to understand him better than anyone—it was as ringing and multi-valent as a piano keyboard. It might have been packaged as a Voice of Authority if Hoffman hadn't been so scrupulous in how he used it, and if his characters hadn't often been untrustworthy, fraudulent or grievously wounded. In fact one through-line in Hoffman's career was a 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.
The 46-year old actor, who battled drug addiction throughout his life and was found dead yesterday in his New York City apartment with a needle in his arm, always gave you something more, or something different, than whatever you'd expected to see. He made you feel more and think more. He never made it easy on himself, or you.
He had so much to give, and gave so much, that watching a Philip Seymour Hoffman performance was always a strangely uneasy proposition. You knew you could not get comfy and just sort of half-watch him. You knew that the performance was not going to be in one mode from start to finish: that there would be moments where you'd feel hatred and loathing of his heroes, or deep sympathy for his villains, or feel angry at his self-destructive characters for failing to get a handle on their demons. You knew things were going to get messy, maybe painful, and that you weren't going to be able to forget his performance. Sometimes the movies weren't even about his character and still you came away thinking of his character. Not Hoffman; his character. This is not a minor distinction.
There was a volatile abundance to Hoffman, a too-muchness that became creative fuel when constricted and channeled by a good part. It often seemed as though, like Marlon Brando, he saw more, sensed more and had more contradictory, grand, ridiculous thoughts than the rest of us. You get a taste of that in his acceptance speech after winning a Best Actor Oscar for playing the title character in "Capote." He doesn't just thank "my friends," but "my friends, my friends, my friends," and director Bennett Miller and screenwriter Dan Futterman, whom "I love, I love, I love." A rose is a rose is a rose. Yes we say yes we say yes.
He always made you ask questions even in the sort of role, or the sort of film, that repelled curiosity. The compassion that appeared in a Hoffman character's eyes when some other character was pissing on him: was it an authentic if counterintuitive emotional reaction, or a strategic ruse setting the aggressor up for retaliation, or the byproduct of some mysterious self-hatred? You could never be sure, just as you can never be sure why your complicated, infuriating friends say or do things, or why you do or say things. That fire-breathing burst of pitiful rage that a Hoffman character unleashed on a vastly more powerful, or less powerful, individual: was it really directed at its apparent target? Or was the target merely a pretext to vent publicly that which might otherwise have been communicated silently while staring into a mirror? You couldn't know, and you got the impression his characters didn't know either, and that the not-knowing was the whole point. Yet still you asked yourselves these kinds of questions as you watched. The answers were never either-or. Sometimes there were no answers.
As Claire Dederer wrote in Salon fifteen years ago—fifteen!—Hoffman's screen presence during the early stage of his career "...was bracing, in the manner of a pine tree, or a pile of garbage. Like any really fine character actor, Hoffman gives off a strong whiff of reality. Hollywood’s idea of a loser is Ethan Hawke with chin whiskers. But Hoffman’s not a rebel loser, he’s a loser loser, the guy at the next table who keeps trying to tell you about his operation. In "Next Stop, Wonderland” (on-screen: 4 minutes), he was every pinko I ever mercy-dated who then turned around and told me how middle-class white girls like me were ruining the planet." As Derek Thompson wrote in The Atlantic, "Instead of standing out in these early films, he stood within them—gauging the pace and tone of the action around him and blending in so delicately that it's not uncommon for even Hoffman fanatics to look back on his career and think, I forgot he was in that."
At a certain point Hoffman started to occupy the centers of films, or orbit closer to their cores; you could no longer forget him, or let him recede into the memory of the film's totality, however good, bad or merely forgettable the totality was. He became a Gene Hackman or Robert Duvall or Kathy Bates sort of performer, a star by virtue of talent and magnetism: a character actor who turned intensity and intellect into a kind of glamour. His award for "Capote" felt in some ways like a coronation, or a "thank you for being you" award—which is what a good number of Oscars ultimately prove to be. There were grumblings that Toby Jones was subtler and more human-scaled in another Capote biography, "Infamous," and one can imagine Hoffman reading such sentiments and thinking, "Screw that" and "Maybe they have a point" and then laughing mysteriously. The most delightful thing about that Oscar, from this viewer's perspective anyway, was that we could rest assured Hoffman wasn't suddenly going to start coasting—though the critic David Thomson, among others, accused Hoffman of either doing that during the mid-aughts or threatening to. I don't think he ever did coast. Even in parts that many actors might have treated as Vacation Home #3—the bad guy in "Mission: Impossible 3," the game architect Plutarch Heavensby in "Hunger Games: Catching Fire"—there was a sense of intellectual and emotional complexity, though never "neatness."
Where to start with Hoffman? Where to end?
This will not be a comprehensive obituary. It's not possible. Not today. To look at his filmography is to become paralyzed by overwhelming evidence of his work ethic, his durability, and his ability to blend into any sort of project while still insisting on a spiky vitality and mystery.
Like a lot of people, I had my "Who the hell is that guy?" moment watching him in Paul Thomas Anderson's two late-'90s dramas, first in a David Mamet-esque spotlight-devouring supporting part in the casino psychodrama "Hard Eight," and then as the hapless Scotty J. in "Boogie Nights"; but I first really appreciated him in, of all things, 1998's Patch Adams, a toxically cloying drama starring Robin Williams as a holy fool doctor who seems to think the phrase "Laughter is the best medicine" is actually a prescription. Hoffman is the colleague who follows him around bitching about his methods: in other words, the foil, the killjoy, the guy who exists only to confirm the hero's magnificent holy foolishness. Alone among the film's cast and crew, Hoffman's Mitch stands up for real world ethics and sense; when he suggests that Patch's clowning is more about narcissism than medicine, you know he has a point. Because Hoffman invests the character's outrage with informed, righteous distress, it doesn't play like more Robin Williams-movie straw man-ism, but an instance of an actor momentarily forcing a dishonest film to be honest.
Let's take a second and think about the last word in that sentence: "honesty." It gets thrown around a lot when we talk about actors, especially ones who had a real spark and died young. But Hoffman's acting was consistently so surprising, yet so firmly rooted in life as it's actually lived and felt, that it took a Monopoly money word and gave it value again. Think of how many Hoffman performances are memorable because you don't want to think about them for long because they make you uncomfortable, not in that phony undergraduate drama student sense, but because they tease out some buried truth about humanity, maybe about you in particular, often within the context of a character you never expected to connect with, much less identify with. Real honesty in acting is a rare thing. It comes from a mix of technique, emotional intelligence, and a rejection of vanity: a mix of qualities that causes the viewer to think only about the character, never about the character in relation to the actor playing him. Hoffman always valued that sort of rare, true honesty. That's why you kept looking at him even when you wanted to look away.
Throughout much of his early career, Hoffman played characters distinguished by an agonized and agonizing neediness. Sometime in the late '90s I joked to a friend that I hesitated to see any film with Phillip Seymour Hoffman in it, because he took so much out of me. I didn't really mean that I didn't want to see him in anything, of course; I was exaggerating my ambivalence, or revulsion, as a gesture of respect for his power as an actor. I meant that if you saw a film with Hoffman in the cast, you were probably committing to watch at least one character, Hoffman's, humiliate himself, or open his heart to to the wrong person, or to the right person at the wrong moment, or do or say something that would make me think of a person I'd really rather not remember, or fear becoming.
Think of Hoffman as poor Scotty J. in "Boogie Nights" with his too-tight clothes and his schlumpy giggle, or the unbearable tool Sean in "Next Stop, Wonderland," or as the obscene phone-caller and chronic masturbator Allen in "Happiness," or the supercilious Brandt in "The Big Lebowski," subsuming any trace of a human pulse beneath his role as a a rich man's valet and protector. Or think of Hoffman as the domineering, slimy, homophobic Freddie Miles in "The Talented Mr. Ripley," paradoxically the emblem of pretty much every negative stereotype of WASP entitlement that American film has given us, and one of the only characters to see through the title character, an identity thief, and decisively confront him. You can't entirely hate or entirely like any of these characters. In some ways they seem beyond "like" or "dislike." A lot of their vividness comes from the writing and direction, of course, but Hoffman always gave them something else, something more: a dollop of of something that you didn't want to examine too closely.
He never played "Other" characters as if they were abstractions. His drag queen in "Flawless" could have been a tedious cartoon character or a politically correct oversimplification, but never is, because Hoffman keeps saying and doing tiny things that make him seem like a real guy, even in situations that don't feel real no matter how charitably you try to view them. Just look at this scene where his character faces gay Republicans in a meeting about a gay pride parade. They've obviously been lined up for a Hollywood liberal fish-in-barrel shoot, but Hoffman refuses to let his character be deployed for crudely-won applause. I love how he looks and listens at the men across the table in their cliche suits-and-ties, and talks to them in a way that makes you wonder if he's being truly flirty or strategically fake-flirty or if even he couldn't parse the difference. "Synthesis," he says, repeating one of the speaker's buzzwords, adding, "You're good."
But he never played mentors or authority figures in a straightforward way, either. One of his most celebrated supporting roles is as the critic Lester Bangs in "Almost Famous," the master setting the film's hero down a path toward realizing his dream of being a rock critic. Nearly every one of Bangs' lines is declamatory—a speech broken up into manageable beats—but Hoffman makes it seem as though Bangs is, not thinking it up on the spot, but feeling his way through words he's probably spoken to young writers, and perhaps to himself, so many times that they're always in danger of being drained of sincerity. It's just one brief section of a long film, but it gives you a sense of a whole young life lived, of dreams realized and thwarted, and basic lessons learned at great cost. "Aw, man, friendship is the booze they feed ya, because they want you to get drunk and feel like you belong," Bangs tells the hero. Listen to how Hoffman uses his voice in this scene, making it quaver like a worn bowstring. ("Awwwww man.") You feel as though Bangs is not dispensing shiny-hard nuggets of wisdom, but saying the same things he always says to himself and others, over and over, like an incantation, to make them feel solid. Bangs, like all Hoffman characters, is a work in progress.
His greatest role might have been as the playwright hero of Charlie Kaufman's "Synecdoche, New York." The film is about how art lets you confront and escape from reality. I]t's about the decay of the body and the illusory nature of time, and it's about the impossibility of finding complete satisfaction and the imperative to get beyond needing it, and what isn't it it about, really? And what doesn't Hoffman give you, really?
"I think everyone struggles with self-love," Hoffman told The Guardian. "That's pretty much the human condition, you know, waking up and trying to live your day in a way that you can go to sleep and feel okay about yourself."
It's all there in Hoffman's "Synecdoche" performance: his career, his life, maybe our lives, too. The architect, the playwright, the master makes the rest of humanity his crew, his cast, his theater, why, to make sense of life, to fix it, to shape it, why, to slow time, to stop time, to spit in death's face: why? It's all a melancholy comedy, a fantasy, a joke. Hoffman plays it like a dreamer wandering the corridors of his dream. The fogginess of Hoffman's voice, that wearied honeyed croak, never seemed so poignant, so much like an old man's voice coming out of a still-young man, or the voice of an old man who mistakenly thinks he's still young, sitting there watching flesh fall, houses burn, women sing, children grow, all the while telling others: go there, stand there, say this, no, wait.
Stay, little Valentine.
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