The most exciting moment I experienced at the 2011 London Film Festival was one that has lived in the memory since. A memory more than a little bitter now upon reflection. At the press conference for The Ides of March, all eyes were understandably on George Clooney, taking the stage of a packed auditorium as if the occasion were a Presidential campaign rally. Beside him and waving to the crowd, a never-more-glamorous Evan Rachel Wood, whose appearance occasioned a few wolf whistles. And shuffling behind his co-stars as inconspicuously as he could manage, head bowed in the manner of one of his many socially awkward characters, Philip Seymour Hoffman. The consummate actor’s actor and matinee idol of the ostracized, cinema’s sudden loss last Sunday night hit me far harder and more personally than most celebrity deaths. Almost a week later it’s still impossible to accept and oddly surreal, like a lingering bad dream – until you consider the grave reality of just how irreplaceable Philip Seymour Hoffman is.
A deeply incisive performer who disappeared into profoundly sad and tenuously contented characters, only to root out their penitent fears and violent loathings, Hoffman was a specialist in human frailty. Accordingly, he cut to the core of what was worth talking about when promoting his films, though few could have guessed that his words regarding the compromised opportunists of The Ides of March might so eerily portend a troubled private life that was prematurely cut short after he overdosed on heroin in his New York home.
“I don’t think there’s heroes anywhere. I don’t think they exist. People do great things in their lives and for mankind, but you don’t know what they are like at home or alone.”
He might not think so, but to me, Philip Seymour Hoffman was a hero.
During freshers week, every new university student finds themselves consciously framing conversations around their passions to best engage the people they hope to form lifelong friendships with. When I think of the lifelong friends I made back in 2002, I think of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Encountering me in my dormitory that first term, eyes would invariably drift from the picture of Paul Thomas Anderson over the bed to the Narnian cupboard beside it, every inch of the wooden doors covered in a Pritt Stick collage of character actors and filmmakers posing for photographer Jeff Vespa, whose Sundance portraits I would obsessively collect and cut out of Premiere Magazine every year. My trusted ploy for drinks at the student union bar was an offer of £50 to whoever could correctly identify all the featured faces, and while no one ever got close to claiming the cash, the face dead center was remarked upon every single time.
“Who’s that? Where have I seen that guy before? Wasn’t he in…”
Pouncing on their confusion, I would breathlessly bombard various Saturday night drinkers with all the reasons why there wasn’t a better or more exciting actor than Philip Seymour Hoffman, something I’d only be too happy to prove it for them if they thought a film might help soothe Sunday’s hangover.
By way of introduction, Todd Solondz’s Happiness, in which Hoffman played a masturbating, filthy phone-caller, was a baptism of fire. Not the easiest first film to watch together. To those people who barely knew me and didn’t peg me as a pervert by extension, thanks for sticking through the film and with me all these years later. I know just how lucky I am.
When bring-a-guest three course dinners followed by a film became a Sunday tradition in my second year shared house, we would never go more than a few weeks without an appearance from PSH. From Next Stop Wonderland, Flawless and Magnolia to State & Main, Love Liza and Owning Mahowny, I introduced so many friends to Hoffman’s work over the years that pretty soon, he felt like a friend too. I’ll never forget a crowd of the converted coming with me opening night to see 25th Hour, and will always fondly remember that night in 2005 when he was awarded what should have been the first of many Oscars for Capote. Those same friends (none of them film obsessives I might add) stayed up till four in the morning just to help me cheer on Phil.
There’ll be no cheering at this year’s Oscars, only tears when his face appears on the ‘In Memorandum’ roll call.
I’d always hoped of interviewing Hoffman and while that wasn’t to be, something completely unexpected occurred that same October of the press conference when I attended a BAFTA ‘Life in Pictures’ interview with the actor talking about his career. Sat a few feet from him in the front row of Cineworld Haymarket (you can see me enjoying hearing Hoffman talk about his first play in the clip below), it was surreal hearing those slurred, vaguely embarrassed speech patterns that typified so many of his characters in person, the big difference being how much happier he sounded in real life. He laughed often, and what a distinctive laugh it was, perhaps the most telling of any screen actor. Reflective of his bulky frame, and boisterous in a way that could fill a space as big as the Haymarket, it was one of the actor’s signature identifiers, adjustably indicating deceit, pain and hate as often as it did joy, relief and love. Whether it be the rock n’ roll enthusiasm of Storm chaser Dusty admiring Helen Hunt’s totalled truck after it’s hurled through an F4 Tornado in Twister, the scornful snort of Freddie, in The Talented Mr Ripley or the nostril-flaring, choked laughter of The Big Lebowski’s Brant – a man seemingly terrified of being exposed as someone who’d happily pay $1000 dollars to watch Bunny La Joya give The Dude a blowjob – whenever Hoffman laughed you laughed with him.
At the end of the interview questions were opened up to the floor and first to the mic, I told Hoffman how I considered Dusty from Twister to be not only one of his most underrated roles, but also his best. A ripple of sniggers ran through the audience, which compelled me to persuasively make a case for the film (as I’ve been doing ever since it was released), explaining to everyone there how it ought to be rightfully regarded as the last great blockbuster, in which practical effects are evenly split with sparingly-used CGI, that helps tell the story rather than slather it in binary spectacle. The real fun of those exhilaratingly filmed storm sequences is that being had by a cast stacked full of great character actors – Hoffman most of all, stealing every scene in which he appears. I saw the film three times in the cinema and most of all, it just felt great to tell him that his contribution was a big reason why, and that ever since, I’ve been unable to hear Deep Purple’s ‘Child in Time” without thinking of him.
Expectedly waiting for this most serious of thesps to shrug it off as a paycheque gig I’d exaggeratedly pumped up with nostalgia, the audience were taken aback by his response of sheer delight, suddenly becoming more animated than he’d been all night. For the next few minutes Hoffman fondly reminisced about what a blast he’d had on that film, being a 25-year-old kid bombing down back roads way over the speed limit and driving the stunt team crazy by crashing his vehicle, “The Barn Burner” several times.
Hoffman’s habit of helping me forge friendships continued that night when I got talking to the guy and girl sat either side of me, and as the event wrapped up, I was so excited to continue talking about this remarkable career that I hardly noticed Hoffman making a beeline for me.
He shook my hand and in the laid back California-cool of his immortal Lester Bangs, thanked me for the best question of the night and a spirited defense of one of his favorite films. “I loved making that, and rarely get asked about it. Thanks for the memories.” The least I could do for all the happy memories he’s given me.
It’s not just the fact that he was never bad in anything he did, or that in films less-than-spectacular, he aspired to make them just that – he had this extraordinary way of always playing the lines of sweaty creeps and pleading sad sacks with an edge of empathy and understanding. His compassion was such that every transgressor felt redeemable, every confession a struggle for self-improvement. When he spoke for men who had fallen from grace, he spoke to their quiet humanity and somehow, they still managed to sound defiantly dignified. The lives were small but the emotions were huge, all the more heartfelt for the way in which they were underplayed.
A standout of a stellar ensemble, in Magnolia, Hoffman plays a dying man’s nurse, desperately trying to contact his estranged son and give them both a last chance of reconciliation. Phil Parma is a recurrent character type in Hoffman’s filmography, one of the many lost souls accumulating a surrogate family to which they’ll never truly belong. Shamefully aware of this fact, quite often these frightened men are also very frightening. In The Talented Mr Ripley, the barely contained contempt of Freddie’s efforts to expose the title character as a con artist is keenly felt because like Tom, Freddie is just as scared of falling out of Dickie Greenleaf’s frivolous favour and being replaced as a friend. For Phil Parma, his deathbed companion is the only one he has, and while his efforts to locate the unremorseful son are genuinely benevolent, quite conceivably they are also a distractionary tactic from the complete lack of meaningful human interaction he’ll have to endure once the man in his care is dead. Lost in unfathomable loneliness, there’s a sense of hitting bottom when Parma orders pornography and peanut butter over the phone, trying to play it off like the most normal thing in the world. Here and in many other scenes throughout the film, Hoffman does that thing which is most moving on screen, of playing somebody trying not to cry, which of course makes me weep every time. The shame of the moment is detectable but not italicised, the shrewdest aspect of the performance in the way the humiliation of his late night phone call seems to hang over Parma the next morning without Hoffman ever calling attention to it.
Few of Hoffman’s characters call attention to themselves and when they try they aren’t very good at it (Scotty in Boogie Nights is probably the best example of this). In the story of their own lives they are small P protagonists struggling to establish a better sense of themselves, a dilemma made manifest and thrashed out in Synecdoche, New York, with Hoffman taking centre stage for once. Indeed, it was only after his Oscar Win for Capote that Hoffman started carving a niche as a most unconventional leading man, giving grandstanding turns in Synecdoche, New York, The Master and the upcoming A Most Wanted Man. This was a new phase of his career that we can only now guess at where it might have led, the numerous possibilities and ‘might have beens’ almost as tragic as the death itself.
His name-above-the-title parts in Synecdoche, New York, and The Master are interesting for their both being imaginers able to do what so many other Hoffman characters couldn’t. Channeling their self-hatred and expressing it through work that defines them, theatre director Caden Cotard devises a grand piece of performance art whilst charlatan Lancaster Dodd is a master of the art of performance. But the constant through all these characters is the inescapability of oneself. Sublimating his pain and angst in drugs that don’t work, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead’s Andy will now certainly be the hardest character in Hoffman’s filmography to revisit, given the way he said goodbye to us.
It’s a regretful shadow cast on the film, which puts me in mind of the regrets I’ll have to live with as a fan. Just as he was starting to settle into leading roles, Hoffman’s career as a filmmaker behind the camera was also starting to take off. Production on Ezekiel Moss was due to begin in March, with Hoffman directing Jake Gyllenhaal and good friend Amy Adams. It would have been his second feature after Jack Goes Boating, an adaption of the play he previously directed Off-Broadway.
And that’s probably my biggest regret. To have never seen this man equally renowned for theatre as he was film tread the boards. The former artistic director of the Labyrinth Theater Company starred in and directed some legendary Broadway productions over the last fifteen years. The quiet despair he brought to Death of a Salesman’s Willy Loman would surely have suited Uncle Vanya, a part he’d have been perfect for about ten years from now but sadly, will never get to play. Regardless, as the developing story of Hoffman’s private pains is poured out in the papers, I can’t help but be reminded of the moment where Sonya tells Vanya, “It’ll be better in the next life, hold on in this one.”
Philip Seymour Hoffman did not hold on, and the battle he lost with drug addiction leaves behind a wife and three small children. I can hardly approve of the way he left us, but the body of work he leaves behind will continue to inspire and has changed the lives of those who knew and admired him.
If the opprobrious details of Hoffman’s end are to be forever commented upon in the same breathe as his gifts as an actor, we can only hope it serves as a warning heeded by those who need it most. With recent reports linking the death to suspected ‘drug tapering’, we need to remember that there is no such thing as a ‘good’ batch of heroin, and that anyone using is already knocking on death’s door.
It’s time to wise up.
In the time he was with us, Philip Seymour Hoffman gave some of the most memorable and moving performances ever to grace the screen and for that, he’ll never be forgotten. We’ll miss you Phil. Thanks for the memories.
First published by Vérité Film Magazine on February 7, 2014