Monday, February 3, 2014

Elegy: Philip Seymour Hoffman

In a world that often seems dark and incomprehensible, yesterday’s passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman makes it appear a little darker, a little less comprehensible even the day after. News that the Oscar-winning actor was found dead in his West Village apartment at the age of 46 was like a punch to the gut, and his sudden and untimely passing is one I’m grappling with.

Hoffman’s career will forever be a permanent milestone in modern acting. Arguably the best character actor of his (my) generation, Hoffman brought a vulnerable sense of humanity to the darkest of characters. His performances were unguarded and so finely nuanced that you often forgot that the shlubby, oft disheveled misfit you were watching on the screen wasn’t the character he was portraying. Hoffman excelled at portraying the oddities and oddballs of contemporary society, and he did so with a searing sense of honesty and gentleness.
Tom Junod, in his gorgeous ESQUIRE requiem “Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Final Secret” captures the essence of Hoffman’s skills as an actor perfectly:

“He often played creeps, but he rarely played them creepily. His métier was human loneliness — the terrible uncinematic kind that has very little to do with high-noon heroism and everything to do with everyday empathy — and the necessary curse of human self-knowledge.”

Much has been – and will continue to be – written about Hoffman’s manner of death, about his struggles with heroin. Those who judge the manner of someone’s passing miss the point of death entirely – not to mention display a troubling lack of empathy and compassion in the process of their ghoulish Monday morning quarterbacking. Three cheers for the golden children untouched by any kind of addiction, and those who possess the mighty strength to rebuke the psychological and physiological pulls of compulsion and dependence. Most of us – at least those self-aware and honest enough – struggle with some kind of preternaturally strong impulse toward something that’s not necessarily good for us. Alcohol, drugs, food, sex and pornography, gambling, shopping, exercise, a bad relationship – hell, even the Internet – are all forms of addiction that myriad people struggle with at certain points in their lives. The degree to which one struggles is irrelevant, as is the object of the addictive behavior.

Despite the media’s salacious need to paint a final, vivid picture of the fallen actor with imagery of syringes stuck in arms and the street names of the drugs allegedly found inside his home,  I prefer to honor what Hoffman shared with me – personally, through his body of work – by remembering him in terms of the characters he played. He did, after all, take great pride in being a character actor. So, instead of that final image of a man felled by his demons, I choose to forever remember Philip Seymour Hoffman as the at times quirky, eccentric, flamboyant, flawed, imperfect, troubled – but always human – characters he played in a distinguished career cut much too short.
For me, Hoffman will forever live on as Scotty, the self-loathing, closeted boom mic operator and lighting technician of the porn film crew in BOOGIE NIGHTS who harbors an unrequited crush on Mark Wahlberg’s character; as Phil Parma, the guardian angel of a male nurse caring for Tom Cruise’s estranged, cancer-stricken father in MAGNOLIA; as Caden, the miserable theatre director
mounting a new production in the bold, surrealist drama Synecdoche, New York; as Father Brendan Flynn, the Catholic priest accused of inappropriate sexual relations with an underage altar boy in DOUBT; as Rusty, Robert DeNero’s drag queen neighbor in FLAWLESS who gives voice lessons to his stroke-stricken character to help him overcome an embarrassing speech impediment; as grief-stricken widower Wilson Joel in LOVE, LIZA who disguises an addiction to inhaling gasoline fumes (known as “huffing”) within his hobby of flying remote control model airplanes to avoid opening his late wife’s suicide note; as Allen, an obscene phone caller in Todd Solondz’s HAPPINESS, whose kinky anonymity masks unrequited love for his neighbor, Helen;  as Freddy Lounds, the sleazy tabloid reporter in RED DRAGON whose runaway journalistic ambitions bring his character to a fiery end; as ill-fated jetsetter Freddie Miles who runs afoul of Matt Damon impersonating a missing mutual friend in THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY; and, of course, as the eccentric Truman Capote in his hypnotic tour-de-force, award-winning role in CAPOTE.

Philip Seymour Hoffman didn’t impersonate the characters he played; he possessed them. He embodied them in ways most contemporary actors will never experience. This was both his blessing and his curse, for it was in this full immersion into character that he undoubtedly met and confronted the demons that haunted them. Some ended up haunting him. As Junod writes in his fine ESQUIRE piece, this was the price he paid for holding up a mirror to those who could barely stand to look at themselves. Those of us who are artists – actors, writers and poets, painters, photographers – share this risk of internalizing the external when we create. It is the plaintive reality of the nature of creativity when we allow ourselves to touch – however fleetingly – the raw, uncensored honesty of the human experience. Philip Seymour Hoffman, unable to escape the madness of the rabbit hole his craft led him down, came to know this reality only too well.
"For me, acting is torturous, and it's torturous because you know it's a beautiful thing. I was young once, and I said, ‘That's beautiful and I want that.’ Wanting it is easy, but trying to be great — well, that's absolutely torturous."
– Philip Seymour Hoffman (1967-2014)

1 comment:

Kev D. said...

Nice one. This is all a mega bummer.