Mourning the Master: The Genius of Philip Seymour Hoffman
by Chad Jewett
Philip Seymour Hoffman was a brilliant and complicated man who, we believe, succumbed to addiction. He was loved, and left behind people whose lives will forever be different in his absence. I need to begin there, if even to mitigate just a bit of the selfishness I feel in writing about him — in writing about his work, and what it meant to me; why I’ll miss him, and why I’m angry that he’s gone. There will always be something self-serving about this kind of thing and an acrid aftertaste in the thought that the way we deal with the deaths of artists is to center their work and passing in our own lives. But after the very real anger at losing someone so compelling for what we tell ourselves are avoidable reasons, after we find out how many children or partners they’re leaving behind, after we learn of the art they were making, the canvases left half-finished, we start to think about all of those two hour interludes, burned to a disc, during which they’ll still be alive. And how much that will hurt. He’ll pop up for a moment at a time in something like The Big Lebowski or The 25th Hour and you’ll wonder how it’s possible. Watching The Master for the first time, I was of course fascinated by the rabid menace of Joaquin Phoenix, the wild geometry of his wry, spastic face, Heath Ledger’s Joker without makeup. But, in the hands of Philip Seymour Hoffman and his L. Ron Hubbard-like Svengali, Lancaster Dodd, the film was able to make its deeper point about power and the way it preys on the weak, men like Phoenix’s Freddie Quell. Phoenix’s danger was kinetic; Hoffman’s threat loomed, hidden behind that ruddy, likable face, that bark of a laugh, that willingness to play the patient buddy figure. But for all the eerie landscape work that was Phoenix’s face acting, The Master truly unsettled me with Hoffman’s last scene, singing an old standard as a chilling siren song, truly revealing how every word out of Lancaster Dodd’s mouth served only as utterly frightening seduction.
Philip Seymour Hoffman was the kind of actor you wish you saw more. You wanted him to save the films you almost loved. I thoroughly enjoyed American Hustle, but as I drove home, through the muddy half-winter of a warm-front Christmas-time, I realized there was something off. It was a movie about dishonesty that was most dishonest about the things it would have us believe it was most in earnest about. The movie only pretended to challenge us with an un-name-ably alluring schlub, asking us to, like its main characters, find beauty in a man in which the long history of film has tried to convince us there is no beauty. But the movie literalized that diamond-in-the-rough idea by simply burying a striking man like Christian Bale, of whom we show up to our megaplex fully aware of his beauty (he was Bruce. Wayne.), in make up and stunt fat. The movie didn’t actually challenge us at all — if anything, it was pretty clear that no one involved actually believed in that power of beauty in ugliness whatsoever (an idea underlined by the joking tone David O. Russell took about this facet of the film before and after the Golden Globes). American Hustle needed Philip Seymour Hoffman, an actor who has constantly troubled us with these binaries, an artist whose great work (Capote, The Master, Doubt, Almost Famous) never allowed us solid ground or easy conclusions. This isn’t to say that there wasn’t beauty in Hoffman – his face was actually always so welcoming: bright and benign. But allure rising out of unexpected places? That would have been poetry in the hands of Philip Seymour Hoffman. It’s what made The Master terrifying – the way terrifying calculation and conspiracy didn’t announce itself. We wanted like hell to be friends with his versions of Truman Capote and Lester Bangs, both because we could see how much of a charge Hoffman got in playing these characters, and because he instilled these men with something of their own, difficult, uneasy realities. We were never allowed unconditional love, and yet somehow we arrived there.
Almost Famous arrived when I was fourteen, seemingly an archetypal age for falling in love with music with abandon. The film was about a precocious music writer following around a 70s rock also-ran, but the beating heart of Almost Famous lay in Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal of the eccentric, loutish, brilliant Lester Bangs. The portrayal (and the man himself) was chest-thumping, and rockist, but it was also an incredibly affirming ten-or-so minutes dedicated to loving art (and happened to be incredibly accurate in setting the world straight on how awful The Doors are). I’ve read plenty of Lester Bangs; he remains one of those unavoidable names, a problematic Mt. Rushmore figure for music criticism. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t picture Bangs the way Seymour portrayed him, if I claimed it wasn’t the cherubic, blonde Dionysus I imagined writing about The Clash or Lou Reed or Kick Out The Jams. Hoffman’s effect on that film, and how we come to connect with the work of Lester Bangs and the hopeless infatuation with whatever art we think worthy of our love that he has come to represent, has found its way into the league of Anthony Hopkins in The Silence Of The Lambs or the damn shark in Jaws. He was barely there, but it still feels like his movie.
That Lester Bangs was himself utterly reckless in the supposed service of the art he chased and grappled with will make it hard to watch Hoffman play him. We’ll realize the way those men’s lives rhymed far more than they should have. I can remember discussing this era’s movie stars with a few friends, after having watched The Wolf Of Wall Street, and theorized aloud about how this generation of greats was different, because self-destruction’s consequences had finally sunk in. Today’s Saturday Night Live after-parties are usually rented-out rooms in nice restaurants – not Belushi and Akroyd and half the writing staff playing opiate Russian Roulette in a sleazy dive bar. I assumed we’d get more out of our marquis actors – DiCaprio, Clooney, and yes, Hoffman – because we’d all seen the casualties of the 1970s and 80s. We’ve spent the last twenty years wondering about phantom River Phoenix roles or never-to-be Nirvana albums. But of course that was glib and shallow and unrealistic about humanity. Our ideas totally ignored how addiction works, and what turns it into a Sisyphean treadmill, and what powers that conveyor belt.
All of a sudden I realize, again selfishly, how one of my favorite films ever, a movie I’ve watched three times in a week on several occasions, will doubly haunt, will now be a dyad of tragedy. That film is Capote. Set around the gay southern writer’s investigation of and struggles with the real-life murder ballad that would constitute In Cold Blood, Capote felt like a tour-de-force. As a deep lover of every word Truman Capote set to paper (and you cannot convince me there was ever a greater selector of words, a better painter of language) I noticed all the ways Philip Seymour Hoffman was not Capote – too long a face, too dense a chin, eyes that were less hawk-like. It would be hard to call the performance “ego-less,” because it was an Oscar-friendly high-wire act – imitating a man whose vocal music was indelible, whose style was perfect. Yet Hoffman tried his hardest to make it clear what it would mean to love a man like Capote, who, by the way, is so utterly easy to love that almost everyone in the film ends up doing so. (Indeed, I owe Hoffman for giving me two hours with my favorite writer, even if that also means that Hoffman was simply very good at convincing me of unreality). We’re never sure if Capote befriends the murderers who will star in In Cold Blood out of love or mendacity – even more startling is the way Hoffman manages to leave us questioning if human nature even works so cleanly, if we can ever really be sure of our own emotions and our own relationships with those around us. I’m writing this already playing a loop of two scenes in my mind. One is the film’s final image: that of Hoffman as Capote, mixing hard liquor and baby food, as if to treat a hangover that will somehow be permanent, as if conceding defeat to an addiction that will eventually kill him. That baby food simply constitutes the man trying to soften the damage. Words on the screen tell us Truman Capote will never complete another novel. It hurts. But there is another moment, and I hope it’s what I picture when I realize, probably sooner than later, that I won’t get another moment like this from Philip Seymour Hoffman. That no one will. His Capote sits in a mid-western kitchen, the kind of place that Hoffman always felt right in because, for all his genius, he also felt terrestrial and flawed and real and poetically American. He sits in that kitchen and talks to a young girl about the difficulties of self, about the burden of performance, about the human spirit: “Ever since I was a child, folks have thought they had me pegged, because of the way I am … the way I talk. And they’re always wrong.” But then, ironically, I think of something Truman Capote himself once wrote: “More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.”