Philip Seymour Hoffman (1967-2014)
He surprised me (Freddie Miles stepping off his car with all the swagger of the rich and unaccountable in “Talented Mr. Ripley”), and saddened me (Scotty J.'s lament, “I'm a fucking idiot, I'm a fucking idiot, I'm a fucking idiot ...” in “Boogie Nights”), and now this one last sad surprise: Philip Seymour Hoffman dead of an apparent drug overdoes at 46 in his New York apartment.
I wrote about him for MSNBC in 2006 after he won the Oscar for best actor over Heath Ledger—his death seems to mimic Ledger's: alone, NY, drugs, too soon—and I haven't stopped thinking about him and his characters since. Earlier this week, in fact, I was mulling over his Lester Bangs, counseling William Miller on rock 'n' roll and life, lamenting their collective lack of cool. I always thought cool was overrated, and that Cameron Crowe bought into cool too much, and you just had to look at most of Hoffman's performances to see how overrated it really was.
His first Oscar nomination was for a lead—in “Capote”—which is surprising, since he was so good for so long in supporting roles: Dustin in “Twister,” Scottie J. in “Boogie Nights,” Brandt in “The Big Lebowski,” Mitch in “Patch Adams,” Phil in “Magnolia,” Freddie in “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” Lester in “Almost Famous.” But then the Academy has usually been late to parties.
From the MSNBC piece, “Philip Seymour Hoffman Is Us”:
Hoffman makes these small, exquisite choices all the time. The look of horror on Scotty J.’s face as a coked-up Dirk Diggler loses it and tells off the crew. The get-along chuckle of Brandt, the manservant in “The Big Lebowski,” and the respectful way he acquiesces to everyone’s wishes, even the Dude’s, even to the point of calling him “Dude” in a respectful, manservant tone of voice. The pause he gives tabloid reporter Freddy Lounds talking to the FBI in “Red Dragon”: “It’s a pleasure doing business with you ... chumps.” What’s sadder? That “chumps” is the bon mot he pauses for, or that he doesn’t realize it’s not much of a bon mot? We watch Hoffman act the way we read the best sentences of the best writers. It’s worthwhile on its own.
Hoffman's manager got in touch with us after the piece appeared, saying how much he liked it. I wrote my editor that I wished I could believe it, but, whoops, I accidentally sent it to Hoffman's manager instead. No, she insisted. It's true, she insisted. Another Scotty J. moment. I am such a fucking idiot.
That was always the key to Hoffman's performances: we identify. Remember “Patch Adams” from 1998? Great box office, horrible film. Title character wants doctors to care. Nasty dean of med school doesn’t. Hence: conflict. Patch even has the typical, snobby, blue-blood roommate we’re supposed to hate. Except there’s a late-night confrontation between the roomies and the film is upended:
Patch (Robin Williams): Why don’t you like me? You’re a prick and I like you.
Mitch (Hoffman): Because you make my effort a joke! I want to be a doctor. This isn’t a game to me! This isn’t playtime! This is serious business. I have it in me to be a great doctor, but in order to do that I have to sacrifice if I want to be better.
Patch: “Better.” Better than me, hmm?
Mitch: I will save lives that could have otherwise not been saved. Now, I could be like you and go around laughing and have a good time, ha ha, but I prefer to learn, because the more I learn, the more likely I will have the right answer at the crucial moment and save a life.
The filmmakers give Patch the final word, but if you’re a thinking person you realize Mitch is right. More, you identify with Mitch. Most of us try so hard in life but there’s always some idiot who hardly tries at all and still passes us up. Mitch could have been a clichéd, reviled character but Hoffman gave him humanity.
All of which recalls something Hoffman told movie critic David Edelstein in a 2006 New York Times profile. Illuminating his struggle to keep Truman Capote less attractive in “Capote,” Hoffman said, “The way toward empathy is actually to be as hard as possible on this character. The harder you are, the more empathy you'll gain, ultimately, by the end.” When Edelstein questioned him on this — less attractive equals more empathy? — Hoffman added, “I think deep down inside, people understand how flawed they are. I think the more benign you make somebody, the less truthful it is.”
Sad sad sad. I wanted decades more of this.