Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Take A Ride On The Streetcar Named Despair

(Phillip Seymour Hoffman (1967-2014) died recently of a drug overdose. Hoffman was a gifted actor who worked hard at his craft and left nothing on the table when he was done. As far as this blogger is concerned, his best film performance was in "Doubt" (2008) as Father Brendan Flynn, a teacher-priest in a Bronx parochial school. The priest finds himself at cross-purposes with the school principal, Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep), and a young nun — Sister James (Amy Adams). The drama revolves around the priest's relationship with a young male student/altar boy. In the era of misbehavior by Roman Catholic priests and children in those congregations, "Doubt" ends with Father Flynn's resignation, while denying any wrongdoing, and his subsequent reassignment to a larger church and its parochial school. There is doubt aplenty for all who were involved in this matter. If this is a (fair & balanced) case of art imitating life, so be it.

[x New Yorker]
Grief And Anger: Phillip Seymour Hoffman
By David Denby

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Come stai?” shouted Philip Seymour Hoffman, bursting out of a red Alfa Romeo sports car in “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” I had noticed him earlier in “Boogie Nights” and “Twister,” playing forlorn, rather masochistic hangers-on, shapeless guys trying to get a piece of the action. He was fearless, that much was obvious; he could play losers with abandon. But as Freddie, the malevolent Princeton bum, who skis, drinks, and fornicates in Italy in “Ripley,” he was something very different—a decadent hedonist with a contemptuous glare (he fixes Matt Damon’s Ripley as a pretender from the first scene) and possessed of a voice that sounded like an angry lizard.

His big gut didn’t look premature in the role. Freddie was not a man to stay in shape (and, years later, it didn’t matter that Hoffman was heavy—he made the routine trimmed and abbed physique of most male stars look trivially vain). Some years later, Hoffman played another exquisite of an entirely different caliber—the brilliant, odd Truman Capote, in “Capote.” He had floating palms, a high, thin, goose-quill voice; his skull seemed huge, almost Rushmoric in closeup, and it was topped with neatly clipped and combed golden hair. As Hoffman played him, Capote, the social and literary lion, devastating with a glass in hand, was almost as badly wounded as the two lost men who killed the Clutter family in Kansas. Yet Capote was infinitely better able to cover his hurt with malicious wit. Hoffman portrayed a public figure capable of facing down scorn—his Capote was an actor himself, a performer and manipulator. It was a touching, entirely ambivalent performance.

I can’t recall an occasion when people have been so upset—grief-struck, really, and also angry—over the death of an actor. Heath Ledger’s death was a shock, but he was so young that there were only a few performances to relish and replay in one’s head. Philip Seymour Hoffman has been around now for more than twenty years, and that voice is thoroughly embedded in our minds. He had more than fifty roles in the cinema. He acted in big-budget movies (he always perked up whatever he was in) and in many, many independent films, some of them good (“The Savages”), many of them mediocre. But he probably got some of them financed, and he gave himself fully to whatever he committed to. And he had a major career in the theatre, playing Chekhov, O’Neill, Miller, Shepard. He worked with young playwrights and actors. A whirlwind, then; an acting genius.

Like many actors, he worked from the outside, and then moved in. First the surface: the bulk and the big head were a constant, obviously, but he was able to do wonders with a slight lifting of the chin, or a canting of his head backward, or a shift in the register of his voice. Thinking of his performances, you realize he was a master of tempo. He rattled off Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue as an arrogant C.I.A. agent in “Charlie Wilson’s War” (keeping Tom Hanks, his co-star, a little off-balance), but often he spoke very slowly, with long, spaced pauses. Much more than most actors, he controlled the flow of time in his movies, and directors must have realized that he knew what he was doing, because you see Hoffman’s command again and again. Then: whatever he did on the surface, the point of it was to reveal the soul within. He was not a romantic actor (in bed with Marisa Tomei in “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” he couldn’t stop giggling), or a physically heroic actor, but he was a soulful actor par excellence. He seemed to have stepped out of Dostoyevsky’s novels, for what he revealed was often turbulent, shameful, bitter—an understanding of defeat, or rage, or lust.

I’m angry about his death for two reasons. One is simply that he can’t be replaced. In recent years, Hollywood has created some good young dramatic actresses, like Anne Hathaway, Emma Stone, Jennifer Lawrence. But most of the young men developed over the past twenty years—or, properly, created by the marketplace—have been buffoons, including Jim Carrey, Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, Will Smith, and now Seth Rogen. And many more. When we lose a dramatic actor like Heath Ledger, he’s not likely to be replaced. And the same is true for a man in his forties like Hoffman. His death leaves an enormous hole that big-studio Hollywood has no commercial reason to fill. It will take the independent cinema years to find his equal.

I’m also angry about the talk of artists inevitably dying of drug overdoses. Some of this talk may be cant. Fifty years ago the same was said about jazz musicians—they lived out at the edge, baring their souls as well as their craft every time they played, and it took the life out of them, so they had to turn to heroin. Really? But Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie had very long runs, and heroic actors like Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, both in their seventies, are still alive and working very hard. Beethoven did not become an alcoholic, and neither did Picasso nor Matisse. On the other hand, anonymous men die in the street every week from heroin. There’s no necessary connection between artistic talent and drugs and alcohol. We don’t really know what Philip Seymour Hoffman’s demons were, but he was a man acquainted with despair, and now some of us are feeling a little of that, too. Ω

[David Denby is a staff writer and film critic at The New Yorker. He is also the author of Great Books (1997) and American Sucker (2004). Denby received both a BA and an MA from Columbia University. He also has an MA from Stanford University.]

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