Monday, February 3, 2014

In Memory of Philip Seymour Hoffman

Courtesy of Santi Slade
*Co-written with my friend and fellow Sun editor Sam Bromer*

Philip Seymour Hoffman, a prolific and widely revered character actor whose Oscar-winning role in Capote made him into an unlikely household name, died Sunday in his West Village apartment. The New York Times reports the cause of death was an apparent heroin overdose, the culmination of a tragic relapse of drug abuse that started last year after 23 years of sobriety. He was 46.

A graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Hoffman hit the ground running with loud, schlubby, scene-stealing supporting characters. After playing a squirrely classmate alongside Al Pacino in 1992’s Scent of a Woman, Hoffman befriended Paul Thomas Anderson and nailed a four-movie streak in his early films Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love. As a gay boom mic operator hopelessly infatuated with Mark Wahlberg’s pornstar in Boogie Nights, Hoffman undercut the free-wheeling, sunny vibe of that film to capture its downbeat core. He aimed for a much different effect in Punch-Drunk Love, where, in his most memorable scene, he shouts, “Shut! Shut! Shut! Shut! Shut Up!” with such syncopated zeal that the clip’s popularity on Internet forums is not hard to fathom. Other early roles include Jeffrey Lebowski’s boastful assistant (“They’re the Little Lebowski Urban Achievers…”) in The Big Lebowski, a spot-on Lester Bangs in Almost Famous, the cultured object of Matt Damon’s lethal envy in The Talented Mr. Ripley and, of course, the slimeball who “sharted” his pants and single-handedly made Along Came Polly something worth watching.

Hoffman began to nudge his way into the mainstream through his riveting portrayal of author Truman Capote. Capote follows the author as he researches a shocking quadruple homicide in Kansas. Hoffman’s effeminate, soft-spoken performance contrasted with his earlier work and earned him several accolades, including the Academy Award for Best Actor. A year later, in 2005, he paved the way for Heath Ledger and other legitimate thespians working in action blockbusters by pulling all the stops as Mission: Impossible III’s terrifying villain. Hoffman received an Supporting Actor nomination at the Academy Awards the following year as a foul-mouthed Greek in Charlie Wilson’s War, a mostly forgettable film buoyed by his in turns hilarious and prescient performance.

After playing an emotionally-crippled history teacher in The Savages, Hoffman took his vows, taking on the role of Father Brendan Flynn, a Bronx priest accused by his parish’s nuns of abusing a young alter boy, in Doubt. Hoffman was a commanding presence in every scene, eliciting sympathy while at the same time drawing the viewer’s disgust; for this role, he received his second consecutive Academy Awards nod. Overlooked by the Academy but not by some influential critics (Roger Ebert named it the best film of the the decade), Synecdoche, New York is a difficult beast, written and directed by Charlie Kaufman at his most reflexive and cryptic. No matter how one makes sense of the plot, at least on first viewing, few fictional characters in this millennium confront our deep-seated fears of death, deterioration and failure like Hoffman’s Caden Cotard. Usually a surreal, highbrow experiment like Synecdoche answers only to the vision of its auteur, but Hoffman pushed through all the obfuscation to unleash something raw and absolutely devastating.

More recently, Hoffman channeled his inner cult-leader in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. The film, a disorienting look at delusion and psychological torment, finds Hoffman as the founder and leader of a philosophical group named “The Cause.” In one scene, Hoffman, portraying Lancaster Dodd, battles with a doubter of his movement, played by the also recently-deceased Christopher Evan Welch. Hoffman’s fury approaches madness as he protects his life’s work — at one point, he calls his opponent a “pig fuck.” Ravenous, unscrupulous and headstrong, Lancaster Dodd presents the actor at his absolute best. Even in his more “commercial” roles, such as his turn as Plutarch Heavensbee in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Hoffman managed to bring his subtle sense of drama and humor to the forefront. In that film, he manages to keep the viewer fully in the dark about the intentions of Heavensbee, a member of the establishment. Though he is not on the screen for many scenes, his confidence as an actor is clear throughout, whether he is ballroom-dancing with Katniss or orchestrating violence from the Capital.
So, look: We know Philip Seymour Hoffman was only an actor, belonging to a different class of celebrity than, say, Nelson Mandela. Our culture tends to holds its famous faces in too-high regard, equally eager to rip them apart at the scent of the slightest wrong. Hoffman earned his reputation through his work alone. He kept his private life private, and it seemed like he could not care less about the awards his peers showered over him. His premature passing only affects those who know him, but the incredible thing is that we number in the millions. He realized some of the most complicated characters in recent cinema beyond their originator’s wildest dreams, guaranteeing we will return to formidable epics like Synecdoche and The Master for years to come. He smuggled real quality into the mainstream. There, here, we mourn the passing of a name, a voice, a face that, together, formed an icon of quality and promised something greater than mere entertainment.

This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.

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