Honest and unmerciful: Philip Seymour Hoffman

By Genevieve Valentine
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Feb. 3, 2014

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Phiiip Seymour Hoffman as Lester Bangs in "Almost Famous."

Early Sunday afternoon, word went out that Philip Seymour Hoffman had died.

When I saw the news on Twitter, in a sea of other news, it was a small, sharp stab. A strange reaction, I thought – it was hardly as though I knew him personally, and he kept a low profile between projects, without building up any Tom Hanks-ian aura of personality intended to create a rapport directly between actor and audience, so that there wasn't even that ineffable sense of losing someone you felt you were friendly with because they'd opened up. Hoffman was a deliberately unknown quantity.

That he was a loss to the acting world went without saying. But there seemed to be a similar sting for anyone trying to pin down that grief through his work. But a striking aspect of this virtual wake  was the dearth of people naming favorites; instead, there were mentions and mentions and mentions of someone's first experience with Hoffman's acting, rattling off their initial exposure to him as if he'd startled them by knocking on their windows.

And there's no question about why. Hoffman's work was just that startling, across the board. It was that honest, that messy; of course it would be impossible to forget.

Amid the 60-odd films in which Hoffman appeared, there's an indisputable through-line of the greats. The early role of lovestruck gay boom-mike operator Scotty J. in Paul Thomas Anderson's grimy Boogie Nights might have gotten lost, save that Hoffman's sobbing self-castigation behind the wheel of his car left an afterimage of hopelessness that stands out, even in a film so filled with hopeless characters. He often managed to walk away with a film despite having only a few scenes. His insufferable but insightful snob Freddie gave a jolt of bougie energy to The Talented Mr. Ripley; as Lester Bangs in Almost Famous, his mantra of journalism as "honest and unmerciful" gives necessary weight amid the sense of pastiche. Capote was Hoffman at his acidic best, a biopic performance that hints, with every sidelong glance, at the inner life behind someone whose navel-gazing could be notoriously public.

But Hoffman's particular genius was his ability to hold so many contradictions in characters who were so often reactive rather than active—in their fury lay a despairing stillness, under their calm a simmering rage. He delivered just such a precisely balanced character in Doubt, as Father Flynn, who has to carry at every moment the twin possibilities of being a child molester or being self-righteously misunderstood; his best grace notes manage to carry both, as his folksy sermon ends with him snapping down on the last syllable of "gossip" like it's poisoned. And in The Master, the deliberate calm of quasi-religious leader Lancaster Dodd is an outward paragon of calm welcome who, in Hoffman's hands, reads halfway between serial killer and ghost.

As a mosaic of difficult parts emerges, you could be forgiven for thinking that in some vague way, he'd typecast himself into a series of lost souls, misbegottens, blowhards and the occasional desperate loser. And there is, undoubtedly, a deep loneliness throughout his characters, a shared circumstance; rare is the Hoffman character who's not searching for a connection they know is unattainable. But beyond that, the scope of his roles runs the gamut. The deepest thing they share is Hoffman's seemingly supernatural ability to be both aware of how his characters will seem to others, and then to set that objectivity aside and seamlessly, wholeheartedly become them anyway, in every eyebrow and delivery, for every last inch – honest and unmerciful.


My first, by the way, was Happiness. I drove to the artsy theater in the suburb next to my suburb to see it, because Todd Solondz had directed it, and I'd found the listing in the newspaper. I had no Internet connection back then, and it was only luck that I'd caught the listing. It's a difficult and demanding film.

My first experience with Philip Seymour Hoffman was his single-shot, close-up monologue in which he describes a vivid fantasy of tying up his neighbor and having such potent sex, it splits her open. Moments later, he crumbles into himself, delivering a pitch-perfect, pitch black, "If she only knew ... deep down, I really cared for her, respected her," and then mourns his own cowardly blandness at being unable to approach her. It's an extraordinarily layered performance, an onion being swiftly and viciously unpeeled, and even as a stand-alone, it's a magnetically uncomfortable character study. For the first two minutes, even the camera doesn't dare look away.

His name is Allen. He makes a series of obscene, harassing phone calls to women; he plasters postcards to his wall using just what you'd expect. When the object of his affections wants to meet him and then rejects him, I watched through my fingers. At last, he makes a tenuous connection with an equally miserable neighbor; it was such a relief for the moments it lasted that just looking at his face, it hurt to breathe.

It's the same feeling I had when I saw the news that he had died.

On Saturday, we also bid farewell to Maximilian Schell, another fine talent, at age 83; his passing leaves behind a filmography of a hundred projects spanning more than half a century, a career fully realized and duly celebrated.

We mourn Philip Seymour Hoffman through what we've seen because we're mourning the many that we'll never know. We've lost a master, too soon.

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