Philip Seymour Hoffman: The Best Moments from an Unforgettable CareerDreamworks
Sean Fennessey: I can only see Philip Seymour Hoffman through the prism of my own experience. Under normal circumstances, I find this shallow and navel-gazing, the kind of thing that has turned obituculture into its own sick cottage industry. But Hoffman, being the kind of character actor I grew up fetishizing — like Jack Warden, J.T. Walsh, and Yaphet Kotto — came into full bloom just as I entered adulthood, and that has made him a profound figure in my view. He was big and gurgly and whiskered and so pallid. He was a crowbar for my favorite filmmaker, Paul Thomas Anderson, sturdy and useful, the man who always pried open the ugliness inside another’s character’s crate. As Phil Parma forcing a painful reunion between Jason Robards’s and Tom Cruise’s characters in Magnolia; as Boogie Nights‘ Scotty J. surfacing all the subtext of fear and awkwardness in that fever dream; mewling and howling like Philip Baker Hall’s insistent conscience at the craps table in Hard Eight; an unquantifiable loon screaming “SHUT!” at Adam Sandler and igniting his rage in Punch-Drunk Love. Later, he would be the ultimate flawed father in The Master: a giant, and so small. Full of love and ruthless. Mesmerizing and broken.
In 2000, he became iconic for a lot of teenagers who spent too much money on CDs. I graduated from high school that year. One summer day before we left for college, my best friend and I, already onto PTA and The Big Lebowski and Happiness, traveled to New York to shop for records at Bleecker Bob’s and bum around the West Village. A not uncommon afternoon. Then we took the 1 train up to the Circle in the Square Theater to see Hoffman and John C. Reilly, another Anderson player, in Sam Shepard’s True West. That two-hander about a pair of estranged, diametrically opposed brothers is legendary for fans of white male angst, having been played previously by Peter Boyle and Tommy Lee Jones, and later Gary Sinise and John Malkovich. Hoffman and Reilly were doing a fascinating thing with the show — they flipped roles every night. The night my friend and I were there Hoffman played Lee, the sweaty, unshaven, unsuccessful drifter. Reilly was Austin, the simpering but accomplished screenwriter younger brother who is house-sitting for their mother. It wasn’t hard to see how either actor could fill both roles — Hoffman’s dark sadness was always on the surface, and Reilly’s dead-eyed contentedness became his trademark, but by play’s end both characters essentially become the same man, venal and damaged. I regret not seeing it a second time for the inversion. As an actor, Hoffman had an awesome volume — his ability to make the gurgle go up into a roar could feel like a static shock, quick and sharp. In True West, he cranked it up, turning his voice and his anger into a bassoon, honking at Reilly with amazing control and loudness. We were gobsmacked by them both, and the play. (I devoured every Shepard play after that, and my friend and I subsequently saw versions of the playwright’s Family Trilogy together. None came close to that iteration of True West.)
Six weeks later, I was at college, hoping to find a way to translate the excitement a show like that could bring into a career. Once-aspirant rock critics talking about the excitement and romanticism they derived from seeing Almost Famous should be punishable by death at this point. But when you’re 18 and all you can do is read Spin and download low-bit-rate copies of Bowie’s Heroes on Napster, Hoffman’s Lester Bangs could have an effect on a person. To this very moment, fans will talk about the “uncool” speech and the way Hoffman opened a vein for William Miller, Cameron Crowe’s stand-in. Or even the emotional tool kit he provides Miller in this scene. His assessment of the music-journalism industrial complex is as sharp as it ever was: “It sounds great, but these people are not your friends. You know, these are people who want you to write sanctimonious stories about the genius of rock stars. And they will ruin rock and roll, and strangle everything we love about it, right? You know, because they’re trying to buy respectability for a form that is gloriously and righteously dumb.”
Both of these scenes have a kind of spiritual advisory — be true to yourself; integrity is a life raft. And that much was true for Bangs, who lived hard and wrote hard and was a truly sad person by many accounts. Reading books of his writing now is difficult, as it is a reminder of every hack who a took a cue from him, but never the right one. Don’t copy style, copy form; unleash. But Hoffman’s version of Bangs in those scenes, as written by Crowe, is a sympathetic mentor whose personal failures are writ large. The only other scene he appears in is his introduction, another exquisite moment of Hoffman loudness.
Here he is being more like every rock critic I ever split a pitcher with at a dark bar in New York — a pontificator, a raconteur, an opinion machine, ever crafting his own empty philosophy. And just when that guys gets so loud and so obnoxious — “Give me the Guess Who!” he says while gesturing at his own Guess Who T-shirt, ferchrissakes — he yelps, “Iggy P-aaaahp! A-men!” and pulls a perfect record from the shelf and forces the disc jockey to spin it. This seemed more like the real Lester Bangs, the one I read, and the one that has been valorized. He was an obnoxious rock critic, like all of ’em. Hoffman knew that. He was happy to be ugly and loud to make you understand.
The Big Lebowski
Mark Lisanti: I can’t say that The Big Lebowski‘s Brandt was among Philip Seymour Hoffman’s 10 best roles. Not for the man who was Lancaster Dodd, who was Scotty, who was Truman Capote.
But this is the role it might hurt the most to watch. Because I’ll see Brandt a hundred more times. Two hundred more times. Lebowski’s always on somewhere, begging you to flip over to catch a scene or two, then sucking you in for the duration. And there will be Brandt, officious Brandt, steadfast Brandt, politely indulging the Dude’s jokes. Handing the Dude an envelope with a severed toe in it. Laughing uncomfortably as Bunny offers the Dude a blow job within earshot of the passed-out nihilist pornographer floating nearby.
This won’t be the movie I put on when I want to watch Hoffman at the height of his powers, or to consider what’s been so senselessly lost. It’s the one where I’ll be forced to confront those things whether I want to or not.
Juliet Litman: “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.”
The first time I watched Almost Famous was not in theaters when it first came out in September 2000. It was months later, when HBO featured it as the Saturday night movie. I was a teenager at home on a weekend night, the definition of uncool. How lucky I was in that moment to have a character that blurred the real/fantasy line telling me it was OK to indulge in a solitary Saturday. I barely knew who Lester Bangs was back then (again, uncool), but the voice of Philip Seymour Hoffman as the rock critic has remained the steadfast voice I hear every time I do something decidedly unfashionable. Even though he is supposed to be a volatile character, Hoffman’s performance is a steadying, guiding force throughout Almost Famous, and I’ll keep in the fictional Lester Bangs credo in mind every time I stay home on a Saturday night.
Steven Hyden: Not his most famous or best role, but his one scene in Hard Eight was one of the first that came to mind when I heard the terrible news on Sunday. It’s possible I didn’t know who he was when I saw the movie for the first time. But he stood out for the same reason he stood out in films he later headlined. He’s alive. He’s real. He has that vein bulging out of his forehead. (That vein deserved an Oscar for Best Supporting Blood Vessel for its pulsating performance in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.) He’s hilarious and desperate and more than a little sad. Maybe back then I thought, “I’d like to punch his lights out.” Today, I want to give that guy a hug.
Mission: Impossible 3
Ian Cohen: While discussing Bruce Springsteen’s uncharacteristically stripped-down and despairing Nebraska, Grantland’s own Steven Hyden brought up a salient point: When an artist performs at an astonishingly consistent level of greatness during his career, it’s tempting to use their least representative work as the definitive proof of their greatness. That’s Contrarianism 101, and well … having figured my colleagues will almost certainly tackle The Master, Almost Famous, Boogie Nights, and so forth, I’m gonna go there.
See, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s credits can pretty much double as a credible list of some of the greatest movies of the past two decades. And if he’s been truly excellent in bad movies, there’s a good chance neither you or I has actually seen it. Which makes his performance as the villainous Owen Davian in MI:3 an outlier — it’s a movie that’s stuck dead in the middle, a commercially successful blockbuster franchise flick that achieved relative critical acclaim because it was both pretty good and, more important, not noticeably bad.
That being said, Hoffman is the one thing that makes me 95 percent sure I actually saw this movie back in 2006. And we’re talking about a Mission Impossible where Kanye West redid the theme with Twista and Keyshia Cole — that somehow went missing in my memory, as well. Big-budget blockbusters aren’t supposed to make you feel dumb, but I’m not sure there’s a way to explain to someone within the span of five seconds what actually happens in MI:3 (Ethan Hunt gets married, something about a rabbit foot … ).
But here is what’s important: Hoffman played many, many villainous characters — creepy, sinister, perverse ones, usually a little too unstable for mass consumption. MI:3 showed a new wrinkle: badass. Like, actual cartoon villain. Though he’s slightly less pasty and paunchy and slightly more debonair than usual, Hoffman is still very much PSH with these deadpan, soul-sucking lines, all at Tom Cruise’s expense:
“You have a wife … girlfriend? Because if you do, I’m gonna find her, whoever she is. I’m gonna hurt her. I’m gonna make her bleed, and cry, and call out your name. And then I’m gonna find you, and kill you right in front of her.”
“What I did to your friend was … fun. It was fun.”
That oleaginous tone … these lines just ooze off the page. Shit, I don’t even remember why Owen Davian had beef with IMF, but I know that guy wants to see Ethan Hunt dead, and hell, you might not want Davian to win, but you don’t want him to die until the very last minute, because he’s getting all the good lines. What I do know is that Hoffman had one shot at “big-budget movie villain,” he knocked it out of the park, and it will remain an unfortunately small but highly satisfying part of his C.V.
“I Like Kools.”
Tess Lynch: I’m assuming that everyone else has chosen the heavy stuff: Phil tracking down Frank in Magnolia, Almost Famous, Boogie Nights, and Synecdoche, New York. There’s a lot of heavy stuff out there, and a lot of funny stuff, too, but I’m not in the mood to post those because right now they’re just making me sad. Instead, here are outtakes of Hoffman trying to get through talking about how he enjoys the “minty flavor” of Kools in The Master.
Certain aspects of the coverage of Hoffman’s death made me uncomfortable. The New York Daily News headline (“with needle in his arm”), the possibility that his family didn’t know what was going on before it hit the media (particularly social media), the horrible conflation of Super Bowl news with memorial tweets: It just doesn’t sit right. And I respectfully disagree with Joyce Carol Oates, whose tweet yesterday read “Doubly depressing when a great artist like Philip Seymour Hoffman dies of drug use for it suggests that mastery of his art was not enough.” I don’t think that’s true; I don’t think addiction works that way.
So here are the Kools, and an actor who was so very good at what he did, and a moment when he was enjoying himself at work.
The Talented Mr. Ripley
Emily Yoshida: As prickly and explosive as many of his characters could be, Hoffman always brought some sense of universal, Jungian familiarity to every role, an immediate sense of relation to our offscreen lives. It’s one of the most ineffable things an actor can do — transform “this dude?” on the page to “THAT guy” on the screen; it’s also one of the most inviting, loving, things an actor can do for an audience, no matter how hateful a character is. Hoffman is only in a handful of scenes in Anthony Minghella’s 1999 adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley, but as a redheaded personality bomb who decimates Tom’s (Matt Damon) burgeoning interclass friendship/romance with Jude Law’s Dickie, he’s a crushing blow of reality made incarnate, arriving in a cherry-red sports car and a cloud of frightened pigeons and relegating Ripley to third-wheel status faster than you can say “tu vuo fa l’Americano.” Everyone knows what that moment feels like (Hoffman is the Rose Byrne to Damon’s Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids), and Hoffman takes the reins of that familiarity and drives you to the dangerous territory where you feel the early bubblings of Tom’s eventually violent resentment right along with him. We were still getting to know Hoffman when Ripley came out, so Freddie’s gradually revealed savvy when he could have been a loutish bully was all the more surprising and threatening. We would eventually come to realize that Hoffman would never let a character be just one thing for long, but he surprised us so constantly and relentlessly, it was impossible to take him for granted.
Philip Seymour Hoffman, New Yorker
netw3rk: I saw Philip Seymour Hoffman in person once, a couple of years ago at Madison Square Park eating at Shake Shack. I tried to sneak a picture, but it didn’t come out great, just this amiable bear of a dude in a baseball cap pulled low, eating a Shack burger. He was a New Yorker. Smarter, more eloquent people than I will celebrate Hoffman’s work here, and in other places. What really got to me, as the news broke Sunday afternoon, was a picture of Hoffman and his son Cooper, courtside at Madison Square Garden in January of 2013. He was a New Yorker, and, though I didn’t realize it until yesterday, I enjoyed counting him among the people I share this city with.
“SHUT SHUT SHUT SHUT SHUT SHUT UP.”
Amos Barshad: As heartbreakingly good as Adam Sandler is in Punch-Drunk Love, the whole thing falls apart without the appropriate counter-ballast. There was no currency in moderation: For Barry Egan’s love to feel fully mighty and massive and pure, it had to fell a worthily odious villain. Enter Philip Seymour Hoffman. He doesn’t have much time to work with: It’s late in the game, and we’re halfway in love with the endless treasures of crackling human connection and all that. And so all Phil has to do is show up and just instantly goddamn terrorize. Which, of course, he does.
In a few spare minutes, he scoffs at even the barest notion of ego, and creates an instantly classic cinematic scumbag. Then he rears back and wields his scumbag like a sledgehammer, smashing all in his path. The victory is short-lived; Egan, powerful enough after all, rights his wrongs with this beastly man. But the imprint is rooted deep. PSH unleashes a violent, frothing thing. And I’m still terrified.
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
John Lopez: Reviewing Philip Seymour Hoffman’s filmography will only deepen the seemingly infinite sense of loss you feel as an audience member. He was in great films, he was in bad films, but no matter the film, if you’ve seen it, you remember him and his role vividly. Any given clip of Hoffman’s work evinces such crystalline intensity that he single-handedly made me believe again in that old myth of the suffering genius artist — i.e., someone whose talent convinces you he’d peered far deeper into the existential vortex than any else of us ever will and whose performances were masterful postcard sketches sent back telling of what he found there. The type of genius that deserves to be his own adjective.
Whether or not that myth is ultimately true, or just the perfect type of hyperbole for a eulogy, I’d like to submit one particular performance as evidence. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead came out in 2007, a year that might be the high-water mark of American filmmaking, and was almost forgotten amid its towering peers — There Will Be Blood, Into the Wild, and Ratatouille, to name just a few. Besides being a great film, and Sidney Lumet’s last, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is also essential viewing because it paired Philip Seymour Hoffman, a luminary of his generation at the top of his game, with one of the great actor’s directors of all time, at the end of his. The combination was breathtaking. You’d be hard-pressed to find a character weaker, more unlikable, and more morally repugnant than Hoffman’s Andy Hanson. At least Daniel Plainview was successful. But somehow, as A.O. Scott observed in his review, Philip Seymour Hoffman assembled a human being out of garbage: “While never for a moment soliciting our empathy, Mr. Hoffman makes us care about this man, the scale of whose ethical failures gives him a kind of negative grandeur.”
And if you want to see how to portray the dissolution of a soul with simply the fury of despair in your eyes, watch the semi-spoiler of a clip below. Or rather, watch the whole film, if you can stand that infinite sense of loss growing even deeper.
A Man of the Stage
Dan Silver: After leaving Boogie Nights, I vividly remember a buddy of mine telling me that the actor who played the kindly simpleton Scotty J. was the same guy who played the hyperbolic comic relief, Dusty Davis, from Twister. And quickly, “that guy” became Philip Seymour Hoffman to me. An actor whose name would led me to heap (occasionally unjustified) acclaim onto upcoming and unreleased projects. Because if PSH chose to be in them, they had to be worthy in some way, right? Even if the film wound up a turd, operating under this mindset, I inevitably walked away saying, “The scenes with Hoffman were good” or “Hoffman was wasted in that.”
What I’ll remember most about Hoffman are the few times I was lucky enough to see him live onstage. Hunger Games aside, the last time I saw him perform was in Mike Nichols’s Death of a Salesman. It was such a raw performance and harrowing theater experience that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to accept another actor in the role of Willy Loman. His reputation as a company member and former artistic director of the Labyrinth Theater Company was legendary. I loved seeing him onstage — he was so still, Pinter-esque in his implementation of silence and pauses. And it was always felt, even in the back of the room. The closest I ever saw the stage Hoffman onscreen was in Clooney’s The Ides of March. He barely moves, and yet he owns the moment.
As a cohabitant of the three-ring circus called life, it pains me when anyone leaves the tent unfairly or too soon. My heart goes out to all of his friends and family. Speaking simply as a fan, I’m saddened trying to imagine all of the great performances us fans have been robbed of experiencing. But similar to the joy and sorrow I felt when seeing James Gandolfini in Enough Said, I’m going to treasure the few remaining treats he’s left behind.
R.I.P., Mr. Hoffman.
Your eternally uncool fan