In Memoriam: Philip Seymour Hoffman
Without presuming to know or explicate the “reasons” for the off-and-on hard drug use that apparently killed Philip Seymour Hoffman at age 46, it’s safe armchair-psychoanalyzing to say that he probably, to some degree, used it to fill the same kind of emotional void that he was so skilled at plumbing in numerous performances. The actor, who died on February 2, has a filmography bristling with incomplete, broken men whose dysfunctional relationships with the world reveal themselves in social incompetence, self-destruction, and violence. One of the most icily empty dirtbags ever put on screen is Hoffman’s Dean Trumbell in Punch-Drunk Love (02). The scam-artist/gangster, who uses a Utah mattress store as a front, threatens to extort the “businessman” played by Adam Sandler, who Dean assumes is loaded. After Trumbell makes the telephoned threat, P.T. Anderson, a repeat collaborator with the actor, gives him an extra beat as you see the red, dead eyes of a vessel of pure criminal, unfeeling anger and moral desolation.
This brief look is a few seconds in only a handful of minutes of a performance, better known for Hoffman’s apoplectic “Shut, shut, shut, shut, shut up!”, an early example of the actor’s distinctive mastery of The Outburst, that loud moment when an always volatile character purges stifled bile. In Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (07), it’s a tear-streaming “It’s not fucking fair!” hurtled at wife Marisa Tomei. In The Master (12), the outburst arrives suddenly, mid-sentence: “If you already know the answers to your questions, then why ask, pig fuck!?” In Capote (05), the release of rage is no less blindsiding for being quietly lisped by Hoffman’s Truman Capote to the incarcerated subject of his book, Perry Smith (Clifton Collins, Jr.), who’d begun to see the writer as a friend and equal: “I know what ‘exacerbate’ means. There is not a word or a sentence or a concept that you can illuminate for me.” To fans of acting that exists wholly to serve the text by disappearing into a film’s texture, these kind of moments might seem like showboating. They arguably beckon you to temporarily step outside the world of the movie and acknowledge a moment of appreciation for Hoffman’s art and effort. But this is a crime only if you aren’t willing to handle and be entertained simultaneously by the film itself and acting that calls some attention to itself, which isn’t a chore when it’s in the hands of a performer as frequently mesmerizing as Hoffman.
Whether it speaks to the aforementioned void or not, Hoffman excelled at playing mopes. There are few more miserable creatures than his gas-huffing widower Wilson in Love Liza (02), a film written by Hoffman’s brother, Gordy, or his Caden Cotard in Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (08). Caden, like Wilson, has also lost a wife (to an exciting new art life in Berlin), and Hoffman’s shell-shocked mutedness throughout the film is a necessary counterbalance to Kaufman’s outsized big-idea splatter, and the wilder performance of Samantha Morton. In Todd Solondz’s love-it-or-loathe-it Happiness (98), Hoffman’s morose Allen, whose voice croaks with depression and who spends his days masturbating to neighbor Lara Flynn Boyle (while callously oblivious to Camryn Manheim’s sincere overtures), is an exaggerated parody of social retardation, appropriate for the film’s graphic-novel-like pastiche of caricatures.
When Hoffman wasn’t fulminating or moping, and often when he was, he could be hilarious. Smaller roles allowed him to find the one best tack to take with a character, and he usually found the funniest and most novel. In The Talented Mr. Ripley (99), he’s the fey hepcat Freddie Miles, whose appearance halfway through the film is timed to spoil Tom Ripley’s labored seduction of glamorous Dickie (Jude Law) and Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow). For like his old friend Dickie, and very much unlike Tom (Matt Damon), Freddie is a genuine member of the privileged class, and Hoffman oozes the kind of born-rich entitlement that Tom can only mimic. Whether shared-headphones listening to jazz with Dickie or just standing at a remove sneering through Tom’s posturing, Hoffman never flinches from the arrogant menace of the character. And he has the film’s funniest line: catching Tom sneaking a look at Dickie and Marge having sex on their boat, he spanks Tom with a deathly withering “Tommy, how’s the peeping? Tommy, how’s the peeping. Tommy. Tommy. Tommy. Tommy. Tommy.” (Hoffman was an expert risk-taker with repetition.) In Boogie Nights (97), his frustratedly pen-chewing Scotty J., a sweaty bag of unrequited lust for Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler, has the film’s most discomfiting scenes. Proving the importance of casting a villain right in an action film, he steals Mission: Impossible III (06) as Owen Davian (or others wearing a perfect Owen Davian mask). In The Big Lebowski (98), Hoffman’s prissy chipperness as the title millionaire’s personal assistant makes an absurd contrast with slovenly Jeff Bridges. In Moneyball (11), he brings sympathetic world-weariness (and paunch) as the old-school, anti–Billy Beane Athletics manager Art Howe. Hoffman even elevates fare as negligible as the Ben Stiller-Jennifer Aniston vehicle Along Came Polly (04), with a bizarre, phlegmy turn that provides a welcome disruption of the rom-com’s rhythms.
It’s easy for late-artist tributes to turn into lists of beloved works and performances. (Those lucky enough to have seen Hoffman on stage, where he directed successfully in addition to acting, would surely have additional praise to heap on.) It’s even easier to garland the deceased with a phrase like “the greatest actor of his generation,” which some Hoffman tributeers have done, as if that’s a measurable benchmark. Better for a stranger to just call the actor’s death for what it is: a tragic loss, for his partner, children and all appreciators of the acting art.