It’s interesting to think about the kinds of careers Philip Seymour Hoffman could have had. You wonder what would have happened if he had started his career on Saturday Night Live because he was so funny. He was the best thing about the banal and depressing rom-com Along Came Polly, playing a character who should have occupied his own movie – a former teen star who shouts “let it reign” whenever he shoots a basketball.
And in case you think this is a one-off, this extra from the DVD of Punch-Drunk Love has to be seen:
Hoffman had an element of Falstaff’s ridiculous and dramatic grandeur to him: it’s a shame he never got a chance to play him. His characters were shaggy, rotund, frequently drunken, and in love with himself. There’s an element of this, however submerged and sophisticated, in Capote and The Master. In the latter, he’s a guru who likes a little rubbing alcohol in his orange juice. But it’s nowhere better than Almost Famous, probably the signature role of a guy who made many, many great films. As Lester Bangs, he’s a manic junkie on life, a goofball scenester who’s smarter than you. Since I’ve read two books of Bangs’ music reviews, I can confirm that he’s internalized every aspect of what made his prose great.
As Matt Zoller Seitz writes in this touching retrospective, Hoffman was remarkable at playing smug, privileged, and self-righteous. In one of his first roles, he plays “George Willis Jr.” in Scent of a Woman, the cocky rich snot who manipulates Chris O’Donnell’s scholarship kid. O’Donnell’s performance is so wooden and unformed that it requires young “Philip S. Hoffman” to make him sympathetic by contrast and to give us any chance of caring about such a cipher. He brought this sociopathic sense of disdain and bemusement to roles like Mission Impossible III that might have otherwise been a throwaway. In Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, he gives the most unique performance of his career as a guy who lives in a weird and dangerous space between desperation and absurd self-confidence.
His great movies will be revisited over and over in the coming weeks. We’ll hear much about his collaborations with Paul Thomas Anderson, for reasons that don’t need to be explained here. But there’s three that no one ever talks about anymore. In David Mamet’s underrated if somewhat pompous 2000 satire State and Main, Hoffman plays a screenwriter who grows increasingly frustrated by the system. Amongst a bunch of lifetimers great at gaming the system, his frumpled confusion makes him the audience surrogate. While a bunch of other great actors (Alec Baldwin, William H. Macy, David Paymer) are playing Hollywood types, Hoffman plays a living, breathing human who doesn’t realize he’s being chewed up and spit out. In this scene, he responds to phoniness not with more phoniness, but with exhaustion and bewilderment.
In 2003’s Owning Mahowny, he plays a gambling addict driven by no other need than his compulsion. In every scene, he’s thinking about the money he can win. Cinematic gambling has rarely looked so seedy, joyless, and workmanlike. The most compelling aspect of his performance is that we realize what he realizes, which is that his addiction is the only thing that makes him interesting. Though he had been great in supporting roles, this is one of the first times he’d ever owned a movie:
But Love Liza, I would argue, is the movie that captures everything you love about Hoffman. It’s one of the strangest films I’ve ever seen, and it doesn’t always work. Directed by actor Todd Louiso, written by Hoffman’s brother, it’s a film about a guy who responds to his wife’s suicide by sniffing copious amounts of gasoline. Ideally, it’s a movie about grief and reflection, but it’s impossible to get past that strange premise (which seems kind of gimmicky). Love Liza is a difficult movie to watch; I seem to remember it was marketed as a comedy, when it’s really another dark movie about addiction.
Nonetheless, Hoffman invests this inarticulate, emotionally detached loner with his trademark mix of sympathy and arrogance, and it’s a thing to behold. This is the most cliché statement you can make about an actor, but I have no idea how he goes there and how he makes this work. He refuses to let us laugh at his glue-tripping, and yet we also never feel totally sorry for his bad behavior.
I’ll close with Roger Ebert’s description of the performance:. It makes me kind of emotional reading through it.
“There is a kind of attentive concern that Hoffman brings to his characters, as if he has been giving them private lessons, and now it is time for their first public recital. Whether or not they are ready, it can be put off no longer, and so here they are, trembling and blinking, wondering why everyone else seems to know the music.”
(After I finished this, I remembered his sad, thoughtful role in 25th Hour. God this guy was something else).