For the past 24 hours, I’ve struggled a bit to come to terms with my feelings about the death of character actor extraordinaire and quiet force of nature Philip Seymour Hoffman. Like many who have reflected on his tragic passing, I’ve long admired his work, regarding his presence in any film as a de facto guarantee of at least some small bit of quality. But actors like Hoffman don’t naturally inspire rabid fandom; he didn’t have the brooding masculine intensity of De Niro, the steely matinee idol glamour of Clooney, the livewire intensity of Pacino, the subversive charm of Bale. Such is the curse of the character actor. So why has his death hit me like this?
I think that my feelings were clarified while I perused David Thomson’s excellent film history tome The Big Screen, particularly its chapter on the films of the Russian revolution, which serves as a timely reminder of what those early artists hoped was the true power of cinema: the power to unite, to change society. How quickly, Thomson notes, were their hopes weakened, as cinema’s prime appeal became that of a vehicle for escape from the uncomfortable realities of life. But even today, don’t we all strive for some sort of transcendence in the cinema experience? Don’t the sellout crowds at midnight premieres of mega-budget blockbusters lend credence to an enduring cultural desire for communal ecstasy? Sure, the church of cinema might be increasingly enraptured with the matters of high sacrament, but it remains a quasi-religious experience, no?
And religious experience breeds familial fraternity. In reflecting upon my love affair with big screens of all sorts, I’ve come to realize that some of the film artists who’ve captured my most passionate devotion are those who have a sense of family about them. To wit: the films of Paul Thomas Anderson, in which I first discovered Phil Hoffman’s chameleonic dexterity. To this day, Hard Eight/Sydney, Boogie Nights and Magnolia still have about them the air of a gifted prodigy playing with increasingly larger train sets, while also inviting his extended cadre of family and friends along to join in the fun. Back in those halcyon days of the late 90’s, Anderson’s blooming Hollywood clout gave him free reign to resurrect the career of the great Philip Baker Hall, to remind the world of the card sharp precision of Mamet regulars Ricky Jay and William H. Macy, to give a late in life boost to old family friend/Ernie Anderson filthy joke partner Robert Ridgely, to cast the sublime Melora Walters in a truly emotionally raw role that most actresses could only feign at, and to turn old friend John C. Reilly into a genuine star.
And, of course, to draw inspiration from Hoffman, first as the sadly pathetic Dirk Diggler fan Scotty J. and then as the almost saintly Phil Parma, a small still voice of loyalty and goodness to Jason Robards’s dying Earl Partridge. Like his mentor Robert Altman, Anderson found great delight in the ensemble cast dramedy. Boogie Nights, in particular, draws much of its primal energy from a loose and hazy sense of sprawl, as characters both major and minor drift in and out of one another’s lives. Hoffman’s screentime in the 70’s porn epic is somewhat limited, but the vulnerability he shows in that time is touching, turning a possibly one dimensional role into a full-blooded portrait of flawed humanity.
Those early Anderson films felt like family reunions, with your close relatives missing in with the eccentric aunt and drunk second cousin that you might only see once a year. And in true familial fashion, those reunions became fewer and farther between. Time progressed, careers grew and Anderson’s focus shifted from loose ensemble to focused (yet still subversive) classicism. Yet still, some of the family members kept showing up. And Hoffman remained a steady presence, as close to a muse as Anderson had. His crowning achievement as L. Ron Hubbard surrogate Lancaster Dodd in The Master was a work suffused with equal parts bombast and empathy.
So, in many ways, I feel like I’ve lost an extended member of the family, so close did I associate Hoffman with the deeply familial Anderson oeuvre. But Lancaster Dodd’s deeply submerged emotional neediness is just as telling an indicator of my connection to Hoffman. In a career of playing common men, villains and one legendary author, he excelled at embracing total vulnerability. Sure, his physical heft and understated demeanor lent themselves to turns like this. But he was also fearless in his pursuit of anti-glamorous roles, while still infusing them with a magnetic charisma. His Lester Bangs in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous steals the show, but is still the man beneath the myth, a sad and lonely figure whose speed-addled rambling hide the idealistic little boy underneath. Dan Mahowney, in the criminally underrated Owning Mahowney, is free falling through his corrosive gambling addiction, but even though he embraces all the ugliness of the character, Hoffman is still fascinating to watch. And there’s the infamous opening shot of Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, a precursor to the descent into Hell that Hoffman and Ethan Hawke embark upon. And the wry world weariness of his Paul Zara in The Ides of March.
But in particular, I’ve always been haunted by his turn in the climactic scene of Spike Lee’s 25th Hour. His Jacob Elinsky is an inherently decent, but weak man, a high school English teacher caught up in the turbulent emotions of his best friend’s (Edward Norton’s Monty Brogan) final day before extended prison time and his secret crush on a student. He serves as the ying to the alpha male yang of Barry Pepper’s Frank Slaughtery (a great, often overlooked turn), a dichotomy that finally reveals itself in full on that hungover morning of Brogan’s departure for the big house. Knowing that a good looking boy like himself will be fodder to the shark tank of prison. Brogan implores Slaughtery to rough him up, to at least buy him a few months of ugliness in which he can find stability behind bars. But Frank, who’s hidden behind his macho bluster all night, won’t do it. It’s only then that Monty, left with no other choice, assaults Jacob, the sacrificial lamb; it’s the one act that Frank can’t tolerate, this attempted destruction of the weakest of their crew, and he finally breaks down and annihilates Monty’s face, while also howling with the grief for his best friend’s possible death sentence that he has kept tamped down. It’s a devastating moment, one that draws so much of its emotional power from the audience’s empathy for Phil Hoffman’s character. His full embrace of vulnerability isn’t pretty, but that’s the whole point.
There’s so much more to remember, but it doesn’t change the fact that today a man is dead, his partner deserted, his children now fatherless. Philip Seymour Hoffman left a bevy of cinematic riches in his wake. But his death also leaves a gaping hole in the film world, one filled with the ghosts of what might have been. And on a human level, it cuts short a life well lived. The term tragedy is too often blithely tossed around in our culture, but in so many definitions of the word, Hoffman’s death was truly that. He will be missed.