A few thoughts on Philip Seymour Hoffman
In the wonderful documentary “I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale, ” several actors note how young male actors instinctively pull away from playing weakness and how tough it is. You want to be strong, you want to be tough, you want to be masculine.
Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died Sunday at the age of 46 of an apparent drug overdose, performed like he feared nothing. He didn’t fear weakness, he didn’t fear creepiness, he didn’t fear villainy. He didn’t fear kindness or comedy. He didn’t fear looking effeminate or like a psychopath.
He could pull off an increasingly hacked-off baseball manager (the Oakland A’s cranky Art Howe in “Moneyball”), a big screen bad guy (“Mission Impossible 3,” wherein he was blessed with the incredibly “movie” name of Owen Davian), a strange, delicate writer (the title character in “Capote” for which he won the Oscar) and a charismatic cult leader (Lancaster Dodd in the astounding “The Master,” a guy you absolutely believed could sustain his own fanatical following).
A lot of people think brave is a silly word to attach to acting, and maybe it is. But words can mean a lot of things, and what people mean when they talk about an actor’s bravery is what characterized every minute of Hoffman’s screen time: He performed like he didn’t worry about playing a type, like he didn’t worry what the next role was. He performed like he was there to be this person for the length of this film.
Isn’t that the actor’s job? Well, yes. But think about how many times you don’t see that from so-called famous actors. Even as Hoffman’s fame grew — and it was not insubstantial when he died — he was always able to vanish into these guys.
Thought he can be seen in “Scent of a Woman” and “Hard Eight” and that one episode of “Law and Order’ (like a lot of actors his age), the first time a lot of people saw him was in “Boogie Nights” in which he played Scotty J., the gay, awkward, emotionally stunted assistant enamored of Dirk Diggler. There are many small, lovely moments in Hoffman’s performance; I remain especially fond of Dirk and Scotty in the hall before Dirk’s first shoot, Dirk listening earnestly while Scotty says things like, “You look really good … and you look really sexy … I like your name a lot.” It’s impossibly sweet.
But nobody who saw it ever forgot the scene wherein Scotty shows Dirk his new car, which is exactly like Dirk’s: “I wanted to make sure you thought it was cool or else I was gonna take it back,” he says. Then he tries to kiss Dirk. This does not go well, with Scotty in his car, almost sobbing: “I’m a (expletive) idiot.” It’s heart-breaking and star-making.
So move from that to the suspicious WASP in “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” the hilariously blustering CIA agent in “Charlie Wilson’s War,” or Lester Bangs in “Almost Famous,” about whom another 1,000 or so words could be written. Think about how completely he was all of those guys.
As a friend put it on Facebook on Sunday, “Think about being as good at your job as Philip Seymour Hoffman was at his.” Not a command, but a salute.