When we grow with artists, we do not just identify with them, or become “fans.” We love these artists, anticipate our experiences with them, and similarly better understand the potential of their means of an expression. Loving an artist indeed becomes a personal venture, especially if one is to believe that art, something that keeps us human, belongs to all of us just as much as it does the artist (to paraphrase a line actually said by Hugh Bonneville in this upcoming Friday’s The Monuments Men). My love for Philip Seymour Hoffman, an icon lost, is directly interwoven with how I began to truly watch films, and learn from them.
To quote A.O. Scott in a bold remark of perfect clarity, “We did not lose just a very good actor. We may have lost the best one we had.” In the craft of acting, one that Scott said years ago is filled with many good actors yet not enough good roles, Hoffman transcended this with a very rare sense of dedication to story and integrity in his selections. Just looking at his work in roughly the past decade, he gave voices to indie writer and/or directors by taking on lead roles with their less immediately accessible films like Bennett Miller’s Capote (2005), Tamara Jenkins’ The Savages (2007), Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (2008), Adam Elliot’s Mary and Max (2009), and Yaron Zilberman’s A Late Quartet (2012).
But perhaps his best concentration within his film performances can be found in his supporting work. In these films, he took on some of his roughest, darkest, most intricate characters, to provide a unique sense of inner conflict to filmmakers often already with an audience and artful importance: Spike Lee’s 25th Hour (2002), Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love (2002), Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007), Mike Nichols’ Charlie Wilson’s War (2007), John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt (2008), Bennett Miller’s Moneyball (2011), George Clooney’s The Ideas of March (2011), and perhaps in the work that most proves his classic excellence, Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (2012). All of this with his incredible, irreplaceable sense that marries the everyman’s context to a theatrical subtext. He gave event performances in films, regardless of the amount of screentime he had.
In a humbled sense, it is remarkable how much cultural institutions like brilliant movie performers can so easily be a part of your daily life. Perhaps without even one’s full consciousness of it, we celebrate the work we love everyday. For years on my work computer, for a job that involves answering the phone, I’ve had a small screenshot of Hoffman screaming on the phone in Punch Drunk Love during his “Shut up! Shut, shut, shut, shut, shut up!” duel opposite Adam Sandler. In my apartment (though not hanging presently), I have a framed Capote poster from when it was first released on VHS and DVD, boasting Hoffman’s then-nomination for “Best Actor.” I hung it for the sake of recognizing Hoffman’s greatness, a type of one-sheet shrine, even for a role that I admittedly don’t love as much his other work.
As goes the cruel sadness of this news within the everyday there was also the excitement I felt last Saturday, a day before he passed, reading about his new directorial project, “Ezekiel Moss.” A Midwest thriller with Amy Adams involved, I was excited to learn that he was directing again. Immediately, I anticipated the screening of this film, and was even specifically curious as to what Hoffman’s version of tension in film editing would be like. Whatever this film would have turned out to be, I certainly now miss it amongst any other potential projects.
In the manner that I imagine people love other institutions, like Robert De Niro, for his association with the films that fuel one’s further understanding of cinema really meaning something, I feel such a reverence for Philip Seymour Hoffman. As I am sure many feel right now, I have lost a hero, and a teacher. To watch the movies he was featured in is not just to celebrate American cinema’s achievements, but to learn from them. Such happened to me as I was growing with movies whilst nonetheless attending film school, and watching the work that featured his efforts. In some cases, he helped guide me to creative worlds I could have never expected. In one small example, his name attracted me to a movie named Happiness with “viewer discretion advised” on the poster art, which would turn writer/director Todd Solondz into an instant favorite of mine.
I am lucky enough to have experienced his work in a movie theater on numerous occasions, with his supporting performances unfurling like cinematic events of their own. His characters were brought to life by remarkably compelling performances, sure, but I admit with full recognition (mindful of the ink-type binding of writing reviews on the internet) that I saw the externalization most of all. Even in my green review of Doubt from its release, I mention shouting as a way for Hoffman to have made his character accessible; I must have been thinking that Hoffman thought of shouting as a way to always create climax within his character arcs. And of course, in my writeup of his directorial debut Jack Goes Boating, I said that as an actor he “doesn’t stretch himself too far.” I didn’t think there was much else to look for.
I recognized and loved the passion, but was only taking in the large picture. As I grew up with film, however, especially when re-watching and really thinking about his other performances from his earlier work (his films with Paul Thomas Anderson especially), I began to have that itch to dig for subtext, and to read far more than what art is simply presenting. In re-views of his involved films at a later age, Philip Seymour Hoffman inspired within a special type of obsession to absorb his every facet, to identify the very specific colors for which he brings average-looking yet emotionally complicated men to life.
With his supporting work particularly, one can recognize the precision in his performances. When watching his appearances in Moneyball and The Ides of March numerous times, I saw intricacies in his characters Art Howe and Paul Zara, respectively, that earlier might have seemed “accessible.” Instead of seeing them as such, I recognized his recurring strengths of presentation — the classic Philip Seymour Hoffman everyman belly — but that of the lush subtext behind his characters. The way a performer can be who they are, speaking how they normally speak and looking as they probably always do, but still take on and then present a completely different personality, with a sense of inner energy to distinguish one being from the next. Hoffman was an essential teacher in my comprehension of the obtuse art that is film acting, even if an understanding of such has a long way to go.
Though I use the past tense when talking about Hoffman with a great sense of sadness and stubbornness, I choose not remember him as a martyr to a darkness that is none of my (our) business, or as a headline subject that once-respected film blogs and click-bait tabloid sites alike try to sensationalize with grotesque denigration. His talent and subsequent loss of such is far too extraordinary for that.
I will instead view him as a leader of his craft, who especially provided a performance at the top of the Orson Welles barometer in The Master, a brilliant puzzle endemic of the further places his talents would assuredly have continued to expand to. As I have not seen every single film that bears his mark, I anticipate experiencing those movies, excited to see the genuine sweetness and ferocity of his work that makes his talent so admirable. I will be certainly watching them with a sense of regret, for having not seen them earlier, and that the amount of films featuring the work of Philip Seymour Hoffman is now numbered. To follow his work to further understand the vivacious art that is film, I am at least assured that his impact, and the fascination his work inspires, is ageless.