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Philip Seymour Hoffman: Remembering The Master

February 17, 2014  |  11:24am
Philip Seymour Hoffman: Remembering The Master

Confession: the first time I become aware of Philip Seymour Hoffman as an actor was with his performance as Dustin “Dusty” Davis in the 1996, Jan De Bont-directed disaster blockbuster, Twister. But even as a preteen with little interest in the art of movies beyond a boyish bloodlust for seeing a CGI-enhanced tornado cause massive destruction, I could sense there was something unquestionably attention-grabbing about the rotund, blond-haired actor playing Dusty. From the character’s halting delivery to his tendency to move in an almost duck-like waddle to his offbeat, brilliant and unmistakably sexualized delivery of the line “suck zone” when describing the team’s weather machine, Hoffman’s performance was unlike anything I’d ever seen in a major motion picture.

It would take many more years for me to make a connection between the idiosyncratic character actor who so thoroughly embodied that film’s lovable-but-obnoxious stormchaser and the distinguished thespian who would stroll across every awards stage in 2006, celebrated for his soulful, immersive evocation of writer Truman Capote in Capote.

Twister was not the first time Hoffman would steal a scene in a project and it certainly wasn’t his last. Moreover, looking back over clips of Hoffman’s work in the wake of his untimely death earlier this month, there was one particular scene in Twister that stuck out. It comes shortly after Dusty’s introduction when Bill Harding, the Bill Paxton character, decides to have his eccentric colleague distract his fiancée Melissa while he attempts to talk to his ex-wife.

“Dusty,” he begins, shooing the two away, “why don’t you explain to Melissa…why you are the way you are?”

It’s a line that could easily have served as the thesis for Hoffman’s—or indeed, any actor’s—entire career. Hoffman was always chasing the why. Defying the poplar maxim that audiences need strong, likable characters to attach themselves to, he made a career out of playing damaged, unappealing and, yes, sometimes thoroughly unlikable individuals. It was through his dedication to his craft and an utter lack of vanity, however, that he would embrace the characters’ faults and go on to inject even the most devious ones with an inordinate amount of humanity. By the end, it became impossible for viewers not to see elements of themselves in the faces of the outcasts and loners he so realistically portrayed.

Often the highest compliment one can pay an actor is how quickly you forget all their previous characters once they’ve entered a scene and uttered their inaugural lines. That was certainly the case for Hoffman. Many are quick to call him a chameleon, but he was more than that. While chameleons may shift their color and appearance, they always remain essentially the same beast. Certainly, in the wake of the correlation between Oscars and body fat, there’s been a tendency to equate becoming physically unrecognizable with giving a stellar performance. Aside from the significant weight loss and voice modulation he employed to play Truman Capote, however, Hoffman was not one to physically transform himself for his roles in the way a Christian Bale or Gary Oldman often do to brilliant effect. It was Hoffman’s distinctive look, in fact, that granted him the status of a “that guy” character actor for a number of years. Hoffman’s general appearance remained mostly unchanged throughout his career, but one still got the sense that each of his films boasted a performance radically different from the one that came before it. He played characters not necessarily by adjusting his external appearance but by determining their core essence and then fully inhabiting it. There’s nothing of the brownnosing manservant from The Big Lebowski in soft-hearted caretaker Phil Parma from Magnolia, just as there’s no trace of the perverse loser he played inHappiness to be found in charismatic, yet insecure religious leader Lancaster Dodd in The Master. A big part of this involved the actor himself selecting a wide range of characters and refusing to be typecast. But Hoffman’s interior-to-exterior approach to each acting challenge was certainly an undeniable factor in the power and joy of seeing those performances play out. Hoffman didn’t need to make himself up to inhabit a different character. He simply became.

Hoffman was never prone to playing what would be considered traditional “good” characters. The fact that one of the more stable, well-adjusted figures on his resume was Lester Bangs, the ’70s most infamously gonzo rock journalist, speaks volumes about the troubled creations that dotted his filmography. If Hoffman had come-of-age in the earlier days of cinema, it’s not out of the question that he would have been offered the roles that went to the likes of Peter Lorre or (later) John Cazale.

And, yet, going back to that Twister quote from earlier, what Hoffman excelled at more than anything was giving us the why? of his characters. Even when such an explanation was not spelled out in the literal text, Hoffman always seemed to understand his character’s drive and, as such, it came through in every aspect of his performance. It was in his walk, it was in his breathing, it was in the words he chose to emphasize and, subsequently, how he selected his pauses. Even in more mainstream fare like Mission: Impossible III or Along Came Polly, Hoffman dug deeper into the crevices of the characters’ psyche and wound up making them, respectively, all the more menacing and all the more hilarious.

The same applies to the bit roles he played in films like Boogie Nights. There’s certainly a reason why, in a movie that’s more than two-and-half hours long, one of the most consistently talked about scenes is a strange tangent where Hoffman’s character, a awkward boom operator with homosexual leanings, tries disastrously to make a pass at Mark Wahlberg’s hotshot porn star Dirk Diggler. In the course of a brisk two minutes, Hoffman’s fumbling performance tells you everything you need to know about this character and his inner turmoil.

Often as is the case whenever notable actors, musicians or writers meet a premature demise, the tendency—after the initial waves of condolences and commemorations and thought-pieces—is to put the death in a larger context and criticize how our culture mourns the lost of a single person whereas destruction, tragedy and death happens every day to countless non-famous individuals. While there’s unquestionably some validity in that statement, the magnitude of mourning surrounding Hoffman’s death speaks not only to the decades of performances that have been lost but also to the power and quality of the work he left behind. It’s what happens when any artist is able to transcend the inherent distancing effect of their medium and coil right into their audience’s heart. It’s the reason some music lovers can’t watch Kurt Cobain’s wide-eyed stare at the end of Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged performance of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” without feeling a chill down their spine. It’s the reason why large groups still refuse to believe, to this day, that Elvis or Tupac Shakur or Andy Kaufman are really dead. While Hoffman could be notoriously reserved or aloof in public, one always felt as though he was an open book onscreen. Moreover, Hoffman became beloved not just because he was great at his job but because he allowed himself to appear so beautifully and achingly human.

Back in 2006, when it quickly became clear that he would run away with every award imaginable for Capote, Paste ran a cover story on Hoffman that proclaimed (in a play on Sally Field’s infamous Oscar speech from 1985), “we like him, we really like him.” Such a sentiment certainly holds true today as we bid adieu to one of the greatest actors of this generation. We like him because he made us laugh. We like him because he made us cry. We like him because he embodied characters that helped make those on the outskirts feel not so alone.

We like him because he somehow conjured up the perfect delivery of the line “suck zone.” And that, my friends, is no easy task.

Now, in honor of Hoffman, we’ve asked several Paste writers and editors to discuss some of their favorite performances from the embarrassment of riches that was his filmography (and this isn’t even taking into consideration his brilliant theater work, including a performance as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman back in 2012).

The Big Lebowski (1998)
In a film that’s already stuffed with iconic, wonderfully bizarre performances, the part of Brandt could have been an afterthought. Yet Hoffman made the most out of every second of his screen time as The Big Lebowski’s non-confrontational, stammering assistant. Nervous laughter has rarely been so glorious.

Hoffman marries impulsive politeness with a misplaced sense of superiority born out of serving the conspicuously rich. He nails every line, most famously the legendary echo: “That had NOT occurred to us, Dude.” But perhaps the real majesty of the performance comes from his physical presence—his stiff posture, his rapping fingers, his need to fidget with his tie. It provides the perfect comic foil to Jeff Bridge’s laid-back Dude, and makes us feel as if we know this character well, even though we’ve only spent a few minutes with him.—Jeremy Matthews

Magnolia (1999)
Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson has said that, after seeing Hoffman play so many weird roles, he wrote Phil Parma to give the actor a character closer to his normal self. The result is Hoffman’s most empathetic, likable role as a nurse trying to get in contact with his dying patient’s (Jason Robards) son (Tom Cruise).

He hits some great comedic notes—as when he calls in an order for porno mags so he can find a phone number to reach the son, a seduction guru. (“Hustler—do you have that?”) But as great as the comedy is, the real beauty of the performance comes in his tender interactions with Robards and, most magnificently, the Seduce & Destroy phone operator he convinces to help. The line that punctuates the conversation—“This is the scene in the movie where you help me out”—could have been treated with winking irony. But in Hoffman’s hands, it’s the climax of an emotional plea to be a person, and understand that sometimes people really do need help outside the realm of daily procedure.—Jeremy Matthews

Almost Famous (2000)
The movie that launched a legion of wannabe music journalists, Cameron Crowe’s love letter to rock’n’roll and his days as an underage Rolling Stone reporter contains no shortage of intriguing, memorable characters. There’s Kate Hudson’s free-spirited Penny Lane, Billy Crudup’s “guitarist with mystique” Russell Hammond and Crowe’s own stand-in, Patrick Fugit’s William Miller. Yet, in only a few moments of screentime, Hoffman, as William’s Yoda-like mentor figure Lester Bangs, stands toe-to-toe with the rest. To be clear, the performance is more than just a pitch-perfect imitation of the real-life Lester Bangs. He emphasizes the human being rather than the legend. Part of Bangs’ memorability concerns how Hoffman is able to so effortlessly encapsulate the character’s two extremes: the fiery (his opening scene finds him extrapolating on the state of rock’n’roll before jamming out to Iggy & The Stooges) and the vulnerable (his much-lauded late-night phone call to Williams about the importance of being “uncool”).—Mark Rozeman

Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
Shortly after the announcement regarding Hoffman’s death, writer/director BenDavid Grabinski tweeted that “the ‘shut up’ scene from Punch-Drunk Love is better than the entire career of most actors.” Re-watching the film today, it’s an easy sentiment to agree with. Prior to this, Hoffman had shown himself to be a master of quiet intensity. Here, he promptly shatters the “quiet” part and lets himself roar with fury. The result is a bombastic bit of comic brilliance. The film may have been designed as a vehicle for Adam Sandler (who is still fantastic, mind you) but the film’s key scenes belong to Hoffman.—Mark Rozeman

Owning Mahowny (2003)
Hoffman stares down the barrel of addiction in this story of a bank employee who embezzles millions of dollars to get his gambling fix. Those who knew Brian Molony, the real-life man who inspired Owning Mahoney, confirm that Hoffman completely embodied his subject’s essence with his quiet, earnest longing. But more importantly, he reached into his character’s emotional core to portray a man who can see himself inching, then careening toward self-destruction, yet simply can’t stop himself. The performance crescendos as the film nears its ironically tragic climax, revealing a man unable to turn away from the rush of risk. The performance is so integral to the film that it’s hard to imagine any other actor puling it off.—Jeremy Matthews

Capote (2005)
The film that finally put Hoffman into the international spotlight and earned him (shockingly) his first Oscar nomination (and subsequent win). At first glance, Capote presents the kind of performance that seems like stereotypical Oscar bait. Yet, rather than simply relying on his dead-on impersonation of Capote to give his portrayal power, Hoffman uses it merely as a launching pad to explore the darkness behind the tiny man with the squeaky voice. No doubt, Hoffman seemed like an odd choice at the time to play Capote. Today, it’s hard to see anyone ever topping his haunting characterization.—Mark Rozeman

Charlie Wilson’s War (2007)
With its specific quirks and rhythms, Aaron Sorkin dialogue works a lot like David Mamet speak. When it’s delivered well, it has a rapturous energy and spark that recalls both His Girl Friday and Paddy Chayfesky. When it’s not, it risks sounding awkward and stage-y. The entire cast of The West Wing aside, few actors could dig into Sorkin’s dialogue quite like Hoffman in this 2007 political comedy. As Gust Avrakotos, a maverick CIA agent with anger issues and an anti-James Bond figure if there ever was one, Hoffman radiates both intelligence and an almost animalistic frustration. Had Hoffman’s lone scene been his introduction, wherein he chews out his boss and proceeds to smash the man’s office window with a hammer, it still would have probably earned him a well-deserved Oscar nomination.—Mark Rozeman

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007)
Hoffman is, for all intents and purposes, the villain of this 2007 thriller, which unfortunately marked the final film of 12 Angry Men director Sidney Lumet. There are many things to love about the film, which slowly elevates itself from a simple heist drama to a family melodrama worthy of the ancient Greeks. One of the film’s signature draws, however, is Hoffman as a man who must watch as his last-ditch chance at happiness proceeds to shatter his world. In a career filled with brutal performances, this marks Hoffman as perhaps his most raw.—Mark Rozeman

Doubt (2008)
I had the great fortune to catch a stage production of John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning morality play during a trip to New York a few years back. At the time, the role of Father Flynn, the charming priest at the center of a potential child molestation scandal, was played by the great Bryan F. O’Byrne. It was a fantastic performance that really helped highlight the ambiguity of the character and his motivations. When Hoffman was chosen to portray the character in the film adaptation, I had a decidedly mixed reaction, despite my love for the actor. Primarily, I worried that Hoffman’s history of playing deviant characters would inevitably lead audiences to certain conclusions, thus negating the film of its driving did-he-or-didn’t-he quandary.

Within the first few minutes of the film, I was thankfully proven wrong. With his softer features, Hoffman comes across as a more sensitive character than O’Byrne’s more stern stage version. This, however, only serves to underscore the character’s duality, as we are not sure whether to read his glances at the put-upon young boy as genuine compassion or inappropriate interest. Add in the fact that Hoffman gets to share scenes with the legendary Meryl Streep and you have a hell of a movie.—Mark Rozeman

Synecdoche, NY (2008)
Of all of the films typically mentioned in Philip Seymour Hoffman’s great catalogue, Synecdoche, NY may be one of the least-referenced pieces. It’s a weird movie. Folks who weren’t English majors (and some who were) couldn’t pronounce the title when it first came out in 2008. Even those of us who would go on to call it a favorite took a couple of viewings before allowing ourselves to fully fall in love with this ambitious story. But one thing about the film was always undeniable—Hoffman delivered an incredible performance. As Caden Cotard, he embodied the fantasies of many a writer/artist. He was a successful playwright, a doting father, and we felt his shock, awe, fear and joy when he sat in that crazy therapist’s office and told her he’d won the MacArthur Genius Grant. Although Charlie Kaufman’s writing and directing had much to do with the unbelievable, amazing, beautiful, tragic, (and again—very strange) story that unfolded, it was Hoffman who made that story believable. Cotard wasn’t an artist, he became the Artist, and we were all right there with him, failing and succeeding in equal amounts with every step towards the inevitable. His ambition was too great, his ideas and projects too grandiose and too complicated, his self-loathing and ego equally overwhelming and problematic. He was as afraid of dying as he was of living, and the tension between those fears haunted and inspired him to no end. Cotard’s personal life was, naturally, an egregiously hot mess (Catherine Keener helped in this department, with a great performance as his wife Adele). Some of us literally wept with him at Olive’s deathbed, even as he somehow managed to deliver a father’s last words with this tongue-in-cheek, off-color humor only Hoffman could pull off: “Can you ever forgive me? For abandoning you… to have anal sex with my homosexual lover, Eric?” And even though he wasn’t directly responsible for that epic funeral monologue, it was Caden’s life that inspired one of the most memorable moments of the film: “Everything is more complicated than you think. You only see a tenth of what is true. There are a million little strings attached to every choice you make… And they say there’s no fate, but there is, it’s what you create.”

In an interview about Synecdoche, NY Hoffman said that he identified with Cotard as an artist, where one’s life and work often “become messy together.” As an actor his work was deeply personal, equal parts fulfilling and maddening because, ultimately, there were no real answers in art or life, but both could be understood as eternal. And surely we have seen that through art and performance there is a certain invincibility, a way of cheating death. Caden Cotard attempted this with his massive, never-ending play within a play (where there were no extras, because everyone is always the lead in their own story), and—without delving too much into the metaphysical—we could say that Philip Seymour Hoffman has fulfilled that attempt. He has become proof that in the so-called end, a great legacy can trump death.—Shannon Houston

Jack Goes Boating (2010)
My wife and I watched Philip Seymour Hoffman last night in my favorite of his roles, the titular lead in Jack Goes Boating, the 2010 film he also directed. It’s not as dazzling a reconstruction as his lead in Capote, not as conflicted and twisted a creation as his Allen in Happiness, not as complex and mysterious as his Lancaster Dodd in The Master. But it just seemed like the perfect way to say goodbye to Hoffman.

Jack Goes Boating shows us two relationships, one disintegrating and one just beginning. John Ortiz and Daphne Rubin-Vega paint a masterfully heartbreaking portrait of the former, but it’s in Amy Ryan’s Connie and his own Jack that we can really see Hoffman’s heart. They’re each a perfect parallel to the other, all awkwardness and sweetness. They embody our worst fears and our deepest hopes about ourselves—we fear that we’re hopelessly awkward in our dealings with others, but hope that they can see through it to the sweetness in our spirit.

It takes a great deal of courage, and a great deal of talent, to let those two attributes so completely define the two lead characters. But Hoffman’s touch is so deft, and his and Ryan’s performances each so masterful, that the characters don’t feel shallow at all. They reach past simplicity to find iconic resonance. They break our hearts, and sew them back up again. In the one role that Hoffman chose for himself, he shows us his heart. And it’s beautiful.—Michael Dunaway

The Master (2012)
Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson was an instrumental figure in Hoffman’s career. After playing scene-stealing roles in four of Anderson’s previous features, Hoffman finally got to take a more front-and-center role in their final collaboration together. While one could argue the film is occasional a bit too cryptic for its own good, few will deny that the acting on display here is top-notch. Hoffman, in particular, excels at playing up the two wildly divergent sides to his character—the calm, mentor figure and the ragging, insecure pseudo-intellectual. His handful of scenes with Joaquin Phoenix as the emotionally scarred Freddie Quell mark some of the most intense, barn-burning acting showcases of recent years. Moreover, this is a film where Hoffman gets to deliver the line, “if you already know the answers to your questions then why ask, pigfuck!?” which is just glorious.—Mark Rozeman

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