Image by Marta Parszeniew
In the theater, the parts an actor plays mark out his life. Today’s fresh-faced Hamlet will be tomorrow’s age-ravaged Lear. If old thesps are fond of telling stories, well, it’s because it all goes by so fast. Philip Seymour Hoffman, who was found dead at his home yesterday in New York following a suspected heroin overdose, was an actor grounded in the theater, a man who could move an audience, who could show them something real. He would have acted the shit out of Lear.
Seymour Hoffman came to prominence at a time when it seemed obligatory to have three names in order to be a truly promising character actor. Along with John C Reilly and William H Macy, he featured in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1997 film Boogie Nights, playing Scotty J, the unhip boy unhappily in love with Dirk Diggler, the python-penis pornstar played by Mark Wahlberg. It was an early indication that here was an actor who could show us, to an uncomfortable and at times almost unbearable degree, what it was to be innately human while also being an outsider, what it was to struggle with the problem of communication and the inability to find happiness. In this scene, Scotty brings Dirk out to show him his new car, which he has bought purely to impress him. He shows Dirk the car and then throws himself at him.
Speaking too fast, stumbling over his words, in those moments before he is politely rejected, Seymour Hoffman manages to embody everyone who has ever loved someone without that love being returned. He is drunk and desperate and then blames the lunge on being drunk and desperate, as if it didn’t mean anything when in fact it means the world. More than this, it’s his character’s sexuality—a difficult and lonely secret—and the fear and fantasy that comes from that, which Seymour Hoffman shows us as he sits alone in his car, his chin bunched up, snivelling and pushing the words, “I’m an idiot” out, over and over. We’re all idiots, trying to show the people we love what we feel, and no one could show us that like Philip Seymour Hoffman.
A year later, in Todd Solondz’s Happiness, he played Allen, who was like his Boogie Nights character but more of a pervert. Allen phones women—one, in particular—obsessively, while jerking off in a lonely pantomime of self-hatred. This character is as sad and cut-off from happiness as Scotty J, but he is creepy and sinister as well as desperate. They say that actors should use the tools they are given, and Seymour Hoffman—with his pale skin, puppy fat, and vaguely ginger side parting—could use these physical characteristics like no other. He seems to be permanently sweating and breathing heavily throughout Happiness. In this scene, the woman he has been bothering calls his bluff and invites him over to her apartment, only to tell him that he’s not her type after she’s watched his hand travel, at an agonising pace, across the sofa towards her.
Seymour Hoffman neatly flips the almost unimaginable frustration he embodied in Happiness on its head in his portrayal of the uptight personal assistant, Brandt, in The Big Lebowski. Here, he is showing the Dude around the real Big Lebowski’s house, just emitting lines like, “Without the necessary means for a necessary means,” from his furiously clenched ass cheeks like it ain’t no thing. In The Talented Mr Ripley, he did a louche, patrician spin on this as the party guy snob, Freddie Miles. Here, he catches Matt Damon spying on Jude Law going to town on Gwyneth on their boat. What’s brilliant is that for half a second, there’s a look of concern on his face. Then, he’s off, like a Harvard guy pouncing on some community college bum, spurting out a laugh before drawling, “Tommy, how’s the peeping?” then repeating it and raising his glass as the final humiliation to Damon’s thwarted outsider. It’s the kind of thing that makes you squirm with joy.
From the beginning, PSH could be as funny as he could be affecting. Say what you want about the “great men” of acting, but can any of them bring the LOLs like the Lonely Man's Brando? Robert De Niro likes to ham it up to 11 but there isn’t a single Meet the Parents / Fockers film in which he’s able to successfully entertain you while Ben Stiller burbles on in the foreground. He should’ve taken a leaf out of Phil’s book. Here he is in Along Came Polly, hollering “Raindance!”, “White chocolate!”, and “Let it rain!” before panting furiously for a Time Out in one of cinema’s great basketball scenes. Along Came Polly may not feature heavily in any appreciations of Seymour Hoffman’s brilliant and varied career but it’s a testament to the fact that any film out there will be greatly improved—and in this case, dragged into the realms of entertainment—by big man Hoffman.
As he got older, Seymour Hoffman was given bigger roles that showed more of him. In The Master, he got to chew up the scenery, bringing the theater to the screen as the L. Ron Hubbard-inspired Lancaster Dodd. In this scene, he channels some Stanley Kubrick vibes as he performs “Go No More A-Roving” in the commanding, camp manner of an old music hall star. That same commanding theatricality is present here in Charlie Wilson’s War, in which he tells his boss he knows he’s been “dignifying” another man’s wife “in the ass,” before breaking his office window and storming out. In Synecdoche, New York, Seymour Hoffman carried a long, meandering, occasionally brilliant and frequently baffling film from start to finish, putting it on his shoulders and carrying it as Atlas carries the world.
Though he was known for being overweight, Seymour Hoffman had a gift few actors possess. He was able to almost magically change his body to fit a part. Not through Oscar-winning crash diets, but through acting. A couple of years ago—watching the small, slight actor Mark Rylance in the brilliant play Jerusalem—I wondered how it was that he managed to puff himself up so that it seemed as though he were the biggest man on the whole stage. So it was with the big Seymour Hoffman, who won an Oscar for playing the tiny, waspish Truman Capote with such emotional and physical skill that you’d think he were a twink, not a bear.
Playing the great rock critic Lester Bangs, in Almost Famous, Seymour Hoffman remarks that: “Great art is about guilt and longing.” So often, that was what Seymour Hoffman’s acting was about. “Truth” is a word that’s thrown around a lot in the theatre; it’s a hazy concept that encompasses a lot of things, including not being hammy, or affected or self-conscious. It’s hard to pin down but easier to see when it’s right in front of you. When you watch Philip Seymour Hoffman act, you are watching something true. He once said of his career: "I just thought I'd ride my bike to the theater. That's what was romantic to me." It’s a line that sums up the possibility of creation, the optimism of making something artistic happen. To think that he’ll never do that again is almost too sad.
Philip Seymour Hoffman is survived by longtime girlfriend Mimi O'Donnell and their three children, Tallulah, Willa, and Cooper. He was 46.
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