Thursday, February 20, 2014
PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN - AN APPRECIATION
Philip Seymour Hoffman
1967 - 2014
"Actors are responsible to the people we play. I don't label or judge. I just play them as honestly and expressively and creatively as I can, in the hope that people who ordinarily turn their heads in disgust instead think, 'What I thought I'd feel about that guy, I don't totally feel right now.'"
Philip Seymour Hoffman
It was Super Bowl Sunday - around four-thirty in the afternoon when I first saw the reports. The news came from an initial tweet from the Wall Street Journal. I paused. It could not be true. My wife had just headed to the bedroom for a nap. I walked into the dark room and said, "Philip Seymour Hoffman is dead." "What?! From what?!" Within an hour, the shark-like media feeding frenzy of a celebrity death would answer that question, Mr. Hoffman was found dead in New York City with a needle in his arm. It was all too fast, too sudden and far too, too sad. I cannot imagine what his family, friends and colleagues are feeling and going through.
Philip Seymour Hoffman is without a doubt one of the great thespians of this generation or of any generation. His ability to play the everyman, his sheer acting range - his ability to go from taciturn to complete rage in seconds. Some of his most powerful moments on film are standing in silence. Then there is the remarkable amount of depth and complexity he could bring to the starring role or a character who is on screen for five minutes. The many times we saw the sadness that lurked just behind his eyes, his ability to get to the humanity of his roles. The true life portrayals of Lester Bangs and Truman Capote. It is astounding to see how physically small he could appear on screen while he played Capote. That Sunday afternoon, it truly felt as though a great energy had departed this planet.
Last week it was announced that Indiana University Cinema was planning to show twelve of Philip Seymour Hoffman's films back to back in a 26-hour tribute to the great actor. I decided that I would pay my respects to a man I never met but to an actor that had moved me in many film roles. It was a beautiful sunny mid-February afternoon when I walked to the IU Cinema. The temperature was unseasonably warm and as a result the large amounts of snow that covered the land was melting. I arrived just before 4pm and ran into Jon Vickers the cinema director and spoke with him briefly prior to him introducing the marathon. Mr. Vickers took to the stage and told us that this tribute was born out of an email from Jim Sherman - the Monday morning following the death of Mr. Hoffman. It read, "PSH is gone. What a loss. Is there anyway we can do a 24-hour tribute to him?" In an already dense programming schedule Jon Vickers informed us that this was no easy task. I am glad they found the time to do so. I would like to thank Jim and Roberta Sherman as well as Jon Vickers and the team at IU Cinema for putting together the Philip Seymour Hoffman tribute.
The films would be screened without any intermissions only a few minutes of break in between each film as they had to be switched over. All said it would be a grand total of 1531 minutes of film. Out of the twelve films, five I had never seen. I was very much looking forward to seeing these films for the first time.
As the house lights dimmed and the curtain began to slowly rise, my thoughts turned to what draws us to the cinema? What draws us to a certain actor? The need to escape, the longing to connect with people - which has always been a great paradox for me (we sit in a dark room and the social etiquette is to not talk or engage with our fellow patrons). Is it the seeking out of new places, new ideas. To be challenged about our concepts of the world we inhabit and the people we share it with. To be moved emotionally. To laugh. I believe that what draws us to a certain actor and the dark confines of a movie theater is all of these concepts acting in tandem.
The first film began to play, Jack Goes Boating - the only film Mr. Hoffman directed. The opening medium shot of Philip Seymour Hoffman filled the screen and I felt a pang of sadness. It is quite fitting that his directorial debut was a film that showcased great acting performances. There was a scene early on of Jack (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the limo driver, leaning against his car and waiting for a passenger. The camera lingers on Jack waiting. Our eyes are drawn to Jack's face and again I was struck with how much is going on behind the eyes of Mr. Hoffman in any shot of any film he acted in.
The second film that played was The Savages. One of the first films released after Mr. Hoffman's Academy Award winning turn playing Truman Capote. Hoffman plays Jon Savage a university professor who alongside his sister Wendy (Laura Linney) are dealing with the relocation of their aging father. The film is a quiet meditation of a family that was never closely connected and now being forced to come together to help the patriarch of the family. Another film one can easily describe as an actor's showcase. This film had me thinking of how those great at anything - be it skateboarding, being a dentist or as in this case acting - make it look easy.
Paul Thomas Anderson's film The Master played and the first notion that struck me was the great collaborations between P.T. Anderson and Mr. Hoffman would never happen again. Definitely not a thought in my mind when I first saw the film in Toronto last year. This film definitely showcases the acting talents of Joaquin Phoenix and Mr. Hoffman. In a film with many great acting scenes, the one I'm most drawn to reflect upon is the scene where Freddie Quell (Phoenix) and Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman) are arrested and imprisoned in cells adjacent to one another. Quell is like an enraged animal and puts on a great display of rage and anger. Filmed mostly in a "two shot", Dodd (Hoffman) stands witnessing this spectacle much like us as the audience. We are naturally drawn to Phoenix in this scene; however, if acting is reacting and viewing the film under the knowledge of Hoffman's passing and in a specific tribute to the actor, my eyes stayed on him in this scene and thinking about his choices on acting and his reaction to Phoenix in this very intense scene.
In yet another intense scene, we see Freddie Quell (Phoenix) going through the process of what is known in the language of the film as "An Application". Dodd (Hoffman) commands Phoenix to pace back and forth between a wooden wall and a window in a dining room with his eyes closed and having Quell describe the wall when he makes contact with it and then the window. To watch as the character Quell is broken down is extremely intense. In all of this is a remarkable small moment when Quell begins to jump around, and Hoffman stands up from his seat quite quickly and raises his hand above Phoenix's head to protect him from hitting his head on a chandelier hanging from the ceiling. It is one of those very small moments that cannot possibly be scripted and is more Hoffman not the character trying to protect his fellow actor that makes me think that the best collaborations are very much rooted in trusting each other.
Mission Impossible III played next and it was quite a jarring tonal switch. I began to think about Mr. Hoffman's wide range of characters he could play. It was indeed a palette cleanser after The Master and was great fun to watch Hoffman "chew the scenery" playing arms dealer Owen Davian. It was a great role reversal from Magnolia which sees Tom Cruise and Hoffman act together in very different circumstances. I also thought it a great piece of business to watch Philip Seymour Hoffman act as Tom Cruise playing Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Almost Famous was the next film on the slate and had me thinking that some of Hoffman's smaller roles are some of his most beloved. In Cameron Crowe's film Hoffman plays Creem magazine editor and writer Lester Bangs. Here is Lester Bangs longtime colleague, Jaan Uhelszki, writing in Spin Magazine about Hoffman playing Lester Bangs "It really felt like Lester was speaking through Philip Seymour Hoffman and it made me a little nervous. I even thought about asking Hoffman questions that only Lester would know the answer to. I wish I had."
A Late Quartet was the next film and was the last I had watched when Mr. Hoffman was still alive. It made watching his performance a more magnifying experience, paying attention much more and watching his acting performance when your gaze and attention should be elsewhere. Much like an orchestral quartet the acting performances in the film are a great ensemble. In a remarkable scene after tragic events are revealed, it was once again amazing to see Hoffman go from complete reacting silence to violent rage in the snap of a finger.
Doubt screened next and would mark my first time seeing the film. Hoffman plays Father Brendan Flynn alongside or against Sister Aloysius Beauvier played with great aplomb by Meryl Streep. It was now after four in the morning. When the opening credits began to play, I must say it was the tremendous scenes between Hoffman and Streep that kept me awake even though I was most assuredly fighting the urge to sleep at this point.
It was around Synecdoche, New York on the edge of six in the morning when fatigue truly began to take hold. It was the opening song during the credits that kept me awake. Watching Philip Seymour Hoffman age in this film made me think that we would never get to see Hoffman age on the screen and all the remarkable roles he would tackle in his advanced years. Imagine watching a seventy-, eighty-year-old Hoffman on screen and the kind of roles he might play. Synecdoche makes you feel all kinds of things as a film - now with the undercurrent of the loss of Philip Seymour Hoffman it makes one even more profoundly sad.
As the sun of the next day had risen, the opening strands of One Is The Loneliest Number sung by Aimee Mann during the opening sequence of Magnolia played. I would say that Phil Parma (Hoffman) caring for the dying Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) is and will be one of the most beloved characters of his entire career. Phil Parma - in a wonderfully complex character-driven film - is truly the heart of Magnolia and displays the remarkable humanity that Hoffman would bring to his acting roles.
Up next was the third of the Paul Thomas Anderson films Boogie Nights that screened as a part of this tribute. Here Hoffman plays Scotty J and made me think of a quote that Hoffman says playing Lester Bangs in Almost Famous: "The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone when we're uncool." It immediately makes me think of the scene between Scotty J and Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) when Scotty J is showing Diggler his new car at a New Years Eve party.
Capote is the film that would see Philip Seymour Hoffman win an Academy Award for his take on the writer Truman Capote. I must admit I had not seen the film, so to watch Capote for the first time in the context of this marathon tribute was amazing. Hoffman really delivers the goods in this Bennett Miller directed film. To watch someone of Hoffman's size play a much smaller physical presence was mesmerizing and the added part of the characterization, that of bringing Capote's voice to life, once again displays what a talent Mr. Hoffman was. Watching this performance never felt as though it was that of impersonation but much more of a transformation.
The last film of the tribute was Owning Mahowny and as a long time resident of Toronto, I felt a pang of joy watching the Toronto of the early eighties on display. Hoffman plays Dan Mahowny a bank manger with an excessive gambling problem. To watch Mahowny going through his addiction brought one's thoughts to Hoffman's own battles with addiction of which he would ultimately lose. As we empathize with Mahowny as he destroys his life, I would say you would be hard pressed not to ruminate and empathize with Philip Seymour Hoffman and what we came to learn of his battle with addiction.
Chatting with people after the last film we arrived at the conclusion that one could easily put together another program of films in tribute to Mr. Hoffman. Although not on the program of films shown at IU Cinema - I would also like to mention the film Love Liza, which was written by Gordy Hoffman the older brother of Philip Seymour Hoffman. This film is centered around a powerhouse acting performance by Mr. Hoffman. Here he portrays Wilson Joel who is a web designer whose wife commits suicide. The film is an intense look at dealing with loss as well as addiction as the character Wilson Joel begins to huff gasoline as a coping mechanism in dealing with his grief. The film is a poignant look at the loss of a loved one and the lives that are affected when one is gone.
It was shortly after 6:30 pm when I made my way out of Indiana University Cinema. The last vestiges of the late February sun was setting in the west. I was grateful to see the sun as I reflected on the hypnotic, fever dream of twenty-six hours hours of cinema devoted to the remarkable talent of Philip Seymour Hoffman. There has been much said and much written about Mr. Hoffman and there will be much more said and written. He is gone now. A great energy and talent has dissipated from this earth but the films and the acting roles remain. To quote Lee Strasberg "Art is longer than life." That may indeed be true however this is also true - no amount of a legacy will ever erase the incredible sadness and pain of the loss of Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Written By Robert A. Mitchell