Philip Seymour Hoffman's Light Touch
Feb 4 2014
Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master.
I didn’t know Philip Seymour Hoffman personally. I only met him a few times over the years. The first was in the early 2000s in a bathroom at the MCC Theater, during the intermission of The Glory of Living, a play he directed starring Anna Paquin. We bumped into each other, but said nothing. At the time, I was too in awe of him to initiate small talk. I remember him laughing the loudest in the theater and I was moved by the support he gave his actors on stage. The second time we met was in 2006 at Jeffrey Katzenberg’s annual Oscar party at the Beverly Hills Hotel. That was the year he was up for an Oscar for Capote. You know how that turned out: He won an Academy Award for Best Actor and gave a powerful tribute to his mother during his acceptance speech that still echoes in my head.
What a year for actors that was. The late and great Heath Ledger was up for Brokeback Mountain and Joaquin Phoenix (pre-mocumentary) had blown us away with his performance in Walk the Line. But it was Philip who reminded us of the power of the light touch. Yesterday morning, someone, shocked by how an actor who seemed to have the world as his oyster could seemingly throw it all away, compared Philip to Marlon Brando. I certainly don't think Hoffman threw it away, but I agree with the second part. Philip, like Brando, had innate power. He was a force. His face had the weight of an emotional sledgehammer. I think Philip knew that and he used it the same way Marlon Brando did—by covering it with the light touch. Look at On the Waterfront, The Wild One, The Godfather, or Last Tango in Paris, and you’ll see a hurricane contained by the silk-like veil of an elegant man speaking in the high pitch of a poet. Watch Philip in Happiness, Magnolia, Capote, Mission Impossible III, Charlie Wilson’s War, and Doubt, and you’ll see the strength of an American actor playing seemingly soft-spoken characters, while delivering gut punch after gut punch with his deeply grounded understanding of humanity. Like Marlon Brando, Philip delivered the poetry of true emotion.
Philip hit us, year after year, with constant magic, changing himself with each performance. What put him on the level of chameleons like Daniel Day Lewis and Meryl Streep and Benicio Del Toro was his sculptural way of acting. By sculptural, I mean his characters seemed to be intricately carved. From The Master to Along Came Polly, all of his characters have this indelible quality. As Michelangelo said of his own work: “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” This is how Philip’s characters feel—like they were real people living their deep and odd lives and were pulled onto the screen to deliver the most intense aspects of themselves. But Philip didn’t just deliver realism, he also tinged each one with the patina of greatness, which goes back to the sculpture idea—his performances had a lapidary quality. They were harder than human, but simultaneously blessed with the inner spark of humanity. They were more human than human.
His characters also always served the film they’re in. He was never a show-boater, but inevitably his acting shined through its context, so that the main thing we usually remembered about a movie with a Philip performance was Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance.
Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote.
I first became aware of Philip in Scent of a Woman. But it was his touched devotee of Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights that knocked me out. Watch him castigate himself after making a pass at Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk and you’ll see some of the most moving material in that film. But all of his work is great. Just look at that nasty “fuck-off, cunt” face Philip gave Matt Damon in The Talented Mr. Ripley as Matt and Jude Law swerved to jazz music in the record shop. It was so nasty and so good. Watch how he fucked with his change in the cafeteria in Charlie Wilson’s War to give a sense of reality, or look at the the ruddy-faced glee he exhibited as a priest drinking wine in Doubt. He conveyed so much life in slight behavior. My favorite performance by Philip, however, was him as Lancaster Dodd in The Master. It’s my favorite because it’s his best work with his best collaborator, Paul Thomas Anderson. The performance has an ethereal power, somehow greater than its parts. As Lancaster Dodd, he was both a genius and a madman—which was one half of the real Philip Seymour Hoffman equation: Genius? Yes. Madman? No. From what I’ve been told, he was one of the sweetest guys around.
The last time I ran into Philip was at Bar Centrale, a theater restaurant, when he came in with a group that included Chris Rock, Zach Braff, and a bunch of great stage actors. At the time, I had read that Philip had gone to rehab for heroin. I was shocked, because you don’t think that a person who absolutely everyone acknowledges as great, would have such problems. But that was foolish, because addiction cares nothing for personality. It is an illness, not a matter of will, class, intelligence, or lifestyle. I have no idea what happened to Phil before he was found dead, but a friend of mine told me they saw him the day before he passed and he looked happy. This says to me that Philip was not someone who had given up. He didn't throw it all away. He was just someone—a very special someone—who was sick. His death is shocking to us because his greatness made him seem invincible. At the very least, all the incredible art he gave us should warrant him another chance.
Rest in peace Phil, you will live on forever in the fire of your work that burned its way into our hearts.
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