CALL HIM PHIL
by Pete Wassell IAFT/L.A.
I come here to praise Philip Seymour Hoffman, not to bury him.
What are the facts? We know how Phillip Seymour Hoffman died. He overdosed on heroin. He was found on the floor of his apartment bathroom with a syringe in his arm, surrounded by empty bags of heroin. During their search of the premises police officers discovered some 60 additional unopened bags. Do you think less of him?
Do you think less of the 119,000 people reported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse to have used heroin in the last month before a survey they conducted in 2003? Or the 57.1% of those who reported using heroin in the past year who were classified as dependent upon or abusers of heroin?
I guess what you have to ask yourself is what does drug addiction mean to you? Does it mean a person is selfish? That they’re lazy, or weak? Do you feel sad for them? Or are you angry?
Whatever your feelings are, I ask you, for the sake of this article, to continue on with a blank slate. Because even though I’ve used up 202 words on the topic of drugs, I won’t be mentioning it again.
To me Philip Seymour Hoffman was a guy I knew. He was Brandt from The Big Lebowski. The guy who wears a façade so perfectly at his job, and plays the game so well, yet knows to call the dude, “dude.”
He’s Scotty from Boogie Nights. The closeted fat guy who really only wants to fit in.
And he is most certainly Dusty. The quasi-stoner, quasi-hippy who gets his kicks from chasing tornadoes. He was that guy.
But what made Philip Seymour Hoffman more than that was his ability break your heart with authenticity. He would add layers to characters who had no right to be so complicated. Dusty should not break your heart, but I dare you to admit you didn’t tear up when he tells Bill Paxton the tornado is headed for Juaquita. Or absolutely know his pain when, in Scent of a Woman he’s forced to rat on his friends. He loved each character he played, whether he was habitually huffing gas in Love Liza or strutting around the Italian countryside in The Talented Mr. Ripley (where I argue he stole every scene he’s in, “Como Este!”). He loved those characters and in turn you loved them too.
As he got older and started making a splash, he began to stretch and expose us to a raw talent not possessed by many. He won the Oscar in 2005 for playing Truman Capote. A performance I would call a study in the truth of a character more than an amazing job of mimicry.
In an interview for the Hudson Union Society he lets us in on his process, saying he spent months studying Capote—his mannerisms, the inflection of his voice. But he explains how that was more of a distraction than anything else. “I had to act the role, and that was the more difficult part actually. Everything else could be kind of practiced and made a part of and I knew I had to do some kind of idea or a sense of his voice and mannerisms and look because he was such an iconic figure, but the acting of it was the tricky part.” And it comes through in his performance.
At no time did I feel like Philip Seymour Hoffman was doing a great tribute. Instead I watched and empathized with a tortured soul. I cried when Capote tells Perry he did everything he could, and I was charmed, utterly charmed by a man who seemed to be the oddest of characters.
In the mid 2000s, Hollywood went on a run with critically acclaimed biopics. Walk the Line, Ray, Capote. Each garnered the lead actors an Oscar nomination. Jamie Foxx won for Ray and Hoffman won for Capote, but the difference between Jamie Foxx’s and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s was the acting. Jamie Foxx played a perfect Ray Charles. Philip Seymour Hoffman was Truman Capote.
After his Oscar win, it seemed the film world had finally welcomed Philip Seymour Hoffman into the ranks of its elite, and oftentimes that means losing your edge.
Jamie Foxx went on to make Dreamgirls, Jarhead, The Soloist, Valentine’s Day, and Django Unchained. Each of those films has merit, some more than others, and Foxx gives a solid, charismatic performance in each.
But Hoffman never lost it. He didn’t start taking fluff pieces here and there. He made one “blockbuster.” Literally right after Capote he played Owen Davian, the villain in Mission Impossible 3. But can you blame him? J.J. Abrams directing him in a role he’s never played.
After MI3, though, you can’t help but respect the hell out of his filmography. To list a few: The Savages, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Charlie Wilson’s War, Synecdoche New York, Doubt, The Ides of March, Moneyball, and The Master. He continued to work with great directors who gave him challenging roles.
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead opens with him in a very vulnerable and what could be an embarrassing position, but in that opening scene alone you understand exactly who his character is. Partly because of the direction, but mostly because of Hoffman’s acting.
He plays Caden Cotard in Synecdoche New York. A playwright losing his mind while writing the play of his life. A challenging role for any actor, yet Hoffman grounded the film in reality, in honest human emotion and that, almost by itself, makes that movie what it is. Any other actor and Synecdoche is nowhere near as powerful or moving.
It is the authenticity of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s work that is the bread and butter of his films. Each one of them would not be as good without him, and that’s saying so much in an art form that is so tied to collaboration.
If I had to pick a favorite Hoffman role, I think it would come down to a tie. The first being Freddy Miles from The Talented Mr. Ripley. In a film starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, and a young Jude Law at the peak of his powers, directed by Anthony Minghella, the jangly Philip Seymour Hoffman literally steals every one of his scenes. Which isn’t many. From the moment he pulls up in his rag top Italian convertible, I can’t take my eyes off him. He plays a filthy rich, spoiled white kid whose attention is what you want more than anything. And he delivers one of my all time favorite lines in film: “Hey Tommy, how’s the peepin’? Tommy? How’s the peepin’…Tommy, Tommy, Tommy, Tommy.” Go home and watch that movie right now and relish that scene.
The second would be Phil Parma from Magnolia. The perfectly effeminate male nurse who is tasked with the job of finding Earl Partridge’s estranged son Frank T.J. Mackey. Hoffman plays the nurse you want when you’re dying. A professional who you can tell works with multiple patients and who is surrounded by sad stories all day long, yet when he arrives he is there for you, and you alone. He acts as the perfect sounding board for Jason Robards, allowing him to pour out his final wishes, to a man who, after Robards dies, will move on to the next patient. Hoffman brings a level of humanity to a role that could have been played with much more impatience and less empathy. He also delivers one of the great I know this is a crazy story, but you gotta believe scenes in the last 30 years while on the phone with a representative for Frank T.J. Mackey’s company.
To say that Philip Seymour Hoffman was a great actor would be a dubious title. Each generation supplies us with great actors, but there are only a handful of those who actually get to the crux of each character they play. Those storied few are the ones we remember forever.
As far back as the Romans we have held a special place in our hearts for the best actors. From Metrobius to Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman belongs in that esteemed company not as a consolation, but as an equal.
My great sorrow is that there will be no more Philip Seymour Hoffman films, and no more characters for him to illuminate. But while he was here, he left us with a legacy of truth. He didn’t just play our favorite characters, he revealed to us parts of ourselves.
Philip Seymour Hoffman 1967 – 2014