I was participating in one of those silly Facebook games the other day. One of your friends puts up a cut and paste post where they add a poster from a certain director’s films. If you like the post, that person will give you a name. You then post a poster of your favorite film from that director. One of my lifelong best friends gave me the name Cameron Crowe. It was a director I didn’t have to think about. “Almost Famous” was my choice. However, in reposting this to my wall I felt the need to point out the performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman of noted music critic Lester Bangs. In such an excellent movie, somehow it was his small role as Bangs that stuck out in my mind as something that needed note.
Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead yesterday in his New York City apartment at the age of 46 of an apparent overdose. He leaves behind 2 daughters, Tallulah and Willa, and one son, Cooper, with his girlfriend, costume designer Mimi O’Donnell. Early in 2013, Hoffman entered a drug rehabilitation program. It is said that he had struggled with substance abuse for quite some time. It never seemed to affect his work, however, which was held in high regard throughout the film and stage communities.
I first noticed Hoffman’s work as an actor in his 1992 movie “Scent of a Woman”. In it he played a private school bully, a fairly typical role that he somehow managed to distinguish with his raw and uninhibited performance. It wasn’t a big role, but it was an obvious breakthrough for a young actor that would eventually rise to much greater success. He bumped around in the types of small roles that would be expected for a young character actor at the time, and I noticed him again in another of those roles several years later in the 1996 summer blockbuster “Twister”, where he played the techno-comic relief of a team of tornado chasers. Once again his performance seemed almost out of place in how it was distinguished above the nature of the material with which it was found.
That same year Hoffman appeared in the first of many collaborations with director Paul Thomas Anderson. “Hard Eight” was Anderson’s first feature and the first of five in which Hoffman would appear for the director. Two years later, Hoffman was part of the ensemble cast of Anderson’s breakthrough picture about the porno industry “Boogie Nights”. Next for Anderson Hoffman would appear in the ensemble picture “Magnolia” as a male nurse who had become the only caring companion to a dying man who had driven his own children away. He also appeared in probably the most interesting film of Adam Sandler’s career, the Anderson helmed “Punch-Drunk Love”. In Anderson’s “The Master”, Hoffman took the reigns as a man based on Scientology creator L. Ron Hubbard. “Let There Be Blood” is Anderson’s only feature to date that did not involve Hoffman.
Hoffman might’ve been too busy for that film carving out an amazing resume of roles at the time. He was nominated for four Academy awards for his roles in “The Master” (2012), “Doubt” (2008), “Charlie Wilson’s War” (2007), and “Capote” (2005) for which he took home the Best Actor statuette during the 2006 ceremony. He won a total of 23 awards for his work as Capote in that film. He was also nominated for a Primetime Emmy for his work in the HBO mini-series “Empire Falls” (2005), a Daytime Emmy for his voiceover work on an episode of the children’s series “Arthur” in 2010, and for three Tony Awards for his work in Sam Shepard’s “True West” in 2000, Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” in 2003 and Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” in 2010.
He made for one of the best action film villains in quite a while as the heavy in “Mission: Impossible III”, but it was his critically lauded independent film work that gained him most of his reputation as one of the most excellent actors of his generation. He often played characters whose life had gotten out of their own control somehow. In “Flawless” (1999) he portrayed a drag queen who befriends a conservative police officer assigned to receive singing lessons for stroke therapy. He captured the essence of addiction as a compulsive gambler in “Owning Mahoney” (2003). He portrayed a writer riddled with neuroses in “The Savages” (2007) and a son who makes a terrible choice to rob his own parents’ jewelry store in the masterful “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” that same year.
He directed himself as a lonesome loser who may have finally found love in “Jack Goes Boating” (2010). But, the film that seems the most personally and essentially a Philip Seymour Hoffman movie is Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York” (2008), in which he portrays a theater director who tries to work out his personal problems through a production of his own life in which he creates a life-size replica of New York City inside a warehouse. It is cinema of the bizarre that somehow captures perfectly the inner struggle of the theater artist.