Feb 3, 2014

Posted by in Ramblings

Vale Philip Seymour Hoffman

Vale Philip Seymour Hoffman

It’s hardly an industry secret to say that movie stars sell movies these days.  There’s a reason that the likes of Tom Cruise, Will Smith and Cameron Diaz are the highest paid folks in Hollywood because they put a lot of bums of seats.  People will go to see the new Tom Cruise film, whatever it is, whatever it’s about.  When a new film title is brought up in a generic pub conversation the first question is more often than not, ‘Who’s in it?’

But I was never of that ilk.  Perhaps because I am a writer and director myself my first question about a new release film has always been about who’s behind the camera.  Writers, directors, DPs.  I will go and see a Coen brothers film on opening weekend.  I’ve seen all of David Mamet’s work, all of Woody Allen’s (oooh, controversial), Rolf De Heer’s and so on.   I’d watch a plain wall if it was shot by Conrad L Hall or Roger Deakin.  ‘Who’s in it’ has never really bothered me or encouraged me to go see a film.  If the material is good, I just trust the director and co have cast the right people to bring it life, whether they’re stars or not.

The point is there is a very, very small handful of people I would go and see a film for, just because they were acting in it.  A very select group of people that, to my mind, are worth watching regardless of how crap the content is, or who created it.  There are very few actors I ‘bother with’ if you like.  Bill Murray.  Yes, I saw Garfield.  Scarlett Johansson.  Yes, I sat through The Spirit.  Increasingly, Jennifer Lawrence.  The Beaver is better than it should be.  Sam Rockwell too.  And Philip Seymour Hoffman.  Yeah, I watched Patch Adams.

In fact, Philip Seymour Hoffman may have been the first actor of my sort of generation of ‘stars’ (although he was hardly a star in the conventional sense) that I truly loved to watch.  And remember, I don’t care who’s in things.  But I watched every damned film that man was in.  There was just something about him.  Who knows why each person connects with what art they connect with but Philip Seymour Hoffman, oh fuck this is going to sound wanky, spoke to me somehow in his performances.  The style, the nuance, the understatement, the much underappreciated sense of comic timing he possessed.  I think along with Murray and Johansson, I think he’s the only person who I have seen close to 100% of their cinematic output.

And so whilst it is a tragedy on many levels that he has died so soon, I don’t want to get into what he could’ve gone on to do, or tales of another celebrity falling to addictions, or the usual ‘what about all the other people who died of ODs yesterday, why aren’t they on the news’.  Because, dare I say it, no… I just want to honour his work.  It’s been quite the week for arguing about separating personal lives, addictions, allegations and alike from people’s artistic output so here I am just saying let us remember PSH for what he will ultimately be remembered as.  The finest actor of his generation and one of the single greatest of all time.

Here are my personal ten standouts of his performances.  As difficult as it is to just pin it down to ten, I will make no attempt to rank them other than chronologically.

twister-movie-alan-ruck-philip-seymour-hoffmanDustin Davis – Twister

Is Twister a good film?  No, not really.  I mean, the bit with the cow is quite funny.  But I went to see this film at the cinema not because Helen Hunt was in, no matter how much I liked Mad About You, which I still think is one of the most underrated sitcoms of it’s era, but, as was so often the case even in my teens, of who wrote it.  The screenplay was from Michael Crichton, a writer who I enjoyed very much, and so off I went.  But this was a mess.  But I genuinely and vividly remember leaving the cinema with some friends and saying I thought it was rubbish, but the nuts guy was brilliant, who was that?  First film I saw him.  Not his first film, I would go back and discover the excellent Hard Eight and such and later click that he was that guy that was in Scent of a Woman briefly too.  But there he was.  Great actors making bad movies better.

Scotty J – Boogie Nights

Imagine anybody else in that role.  It’d be a train wreck of bumbling and cliches I dare say.  Instead, in limited screen time PSH, along with PT Anderson’s belter script, give you a fully realised, flawed human being.  In many ways this role would define Hoffman.  This was the sort of character he just devoured.  I saw this in the cinema with some friends, two of whom walked out because they hated it so much. Fools.

Brandt – The Big Lebowski

Again in a small role, again just owning it.  Lebowski is full of incredible small parts from Donny to The Jesus to Bunny that Brandt is often forgotten.  But as the only person not in the bowling team happy to call Lebowski ‘The Dude’, well, how can you overlook that.  Oh, and the laugh.  The laugh.

Allen – Happiness

lara-flynn-boyle-philip-seymour-hoffman-happinessHappiness is not a comfortable watch but then it’s not meant to be.  But it is darkly hilarious and creepy and, well, it’s a lot of things.  This is probably the performance that really brought PSH to most people’s attention.  Not just because he’s so very good but because the film itself garnered it’s fair share of controversy.  So when people did catch up with it to see what the fuss was about they were introduced to a character actor of extraordinary ability.  And then there’s that phone call.

Phil Parma – Magnolia

Where to start?  Magnolia sits as an out and out masterpiece and one of my favourite films of all time.  I was already a fan of PSH by this point but after this film I think I made the conscious effort to see everything he’d ever done or would ever do.  It’s a flawless performance.  And the call as he tries to track down Frank Mackie agent is what they should show every acting student ever when doing the lessons on ‘less is more’.  Watch that scene over and over.  Every little thing that is going on in that character’s head, is right there.  And he doesn’t tell you a damned thing.  Good holy mother of fuck this film is somewhere near perfect, as is his work in it.

State_and_Main_rebecca_pidgeon_philip_seymour_hoffmanJoseph Turner White – State & Main

If I say Magnolia is his best work, David Mamet’s State & Main might well be my favourite.  So often he played the downtrodden guy, it’s what he would become known for, but given the chance to do it within a comedy, he took it to another level.  State & Main is one of those films I could watch once a week forever and still laugh at it.  It’s one of the best ensembles I’ve ever seen in a comedy and even so, PSH manages to steal the show.

Dan Mahowny – Owning Mahowny

A small film that was rather good, but could’ve been better but it holds a place in my memory.  There was an outdoor film festival in Joondalup, back in WA, when I was in my early twenties.  They showed the usual outdoor cinema fare, Grease, Ferris Beuller’s Day Off and so on.  But one night they had on Owning Mahowny for some odd reason.  Now, this was in the days before streaming and prompt DVD releases and iTunes and so on.  And this was Perth, Western Australia which meant there were two indie cinemas in the whole city.  And Owning Mahowny had one screening, at one cinema, for one night only, and that was it.  And Joondalup was a solid hour’s drive from my house and it was drizzling.  But how else was I going to see Philip Seymour Hoffman’s latest?  Wait over a year at least and hope the DVD got an Australian release?  Amazon didn’t do international postage then either.  So with my future wife and a mate we went.  And we were not disappointed.  If he made a bad movie like Twister good, then he turned a good one like this into a must see.  Possibly the best film, certainly the most accurate, about a gambling addiction ever.

Truman Capote – Capote

PSH got his Best Actor Oscar for this role but that doesn’t matter to me.  The Oscars are basically a rigged commercial as is, so, whatever.  What grabbed me about the film was how very easy, even in a good film with a good script, you could turn Truman Capote into nothing but a voice.  A cartoon character if you will.  What Philip Seymour Hoffman did was the exact opposite.  He didn’t play the voice.  He played a man who just had that voice.  That, in itself, is probably the greatest achievement of the whole film.  But then factor in that Truman Capote was a tiny little man.  PSH is most certainly not, even trimmed down.  And yet, he is Capote to a tea.  It’s not an impersonation either.  It’s a masterclass.

synecdoche_new_york15Caden Cotard – Synedoche, New York

You could, well, I could, write a few thousand words about this film.  I remember seeing it at home on BluRay and just sitting there, with my wife, for nearly five minutes after the credits ended, neither of us having said anything.  It’s as flawed as it is perfect.  It’s perfect because it’s flawed.  It’s as close to ‘art for arts sake’ as a film gets in some ways and yet it’s a conventional story too.  And the whole thing hinges on Hoffman’s performance.  If he drops the ball, if he loses touch with the insanity of that lead character for one second, the whole film falls in a dirty, stinking mess.  He doesn’t.  It doesn’t.  One of the most incredible films I’ve ever seen.

Max Jerry Horovitz – Mary and Max

A film I imagine less well known than the rest, Mary and Max is a stunningly beautiful, and utterly heartbreaking, animation film from Adam Elliot. PSH provides the voice for Max, a depressed, obese man trapped in his apartment in NYC.  It’s difficult to imagine anyone else being able to give a lump of clay (a perfectly animated bunch of clay to be fair) the depth, heart and everything else that he does.  If you can get through this film without crying then you’re probably already dead.

And that’s ten.  And I didn’t even mention Before the Devil Knows Your Dead, The Master, Love Liza or The Ides of March. His performances in those, welll, they’d be the top four films of almost anyone else’s careers but I couldn’t even fit them in my top ten and now I feel dirty for it.  And what about his blockbuster work?  Incredible performances of real depth in big budget chaos like Mission Impossible 2 and The Hunger Games:Catching Fire?  How can I not mention those?  And his stage work.

Fuck.

Fuck it.

Just fuck it.

I did not know him, but I knew his characters, and through that, maybe a part of him.  

My thoughts with his loved ones.  Philip Seymour Hoffman, thank you for what you gave us while you were here.  You will be missed greatly.  If nothing else, I hope the man knew that.

All copyright of images lies with their respected owners, studios etc.

  1. Great tribute Trent, well said that man!

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