02.03.2014

Philip Seymour Hoffman (1967–2014)

To see Philip Seymour Hoffman even in films that you hated was to come away awed.

After Philip Seymour Hoffman’s sudden death yesterday, it’s hard to find ways to pay tribute to his greatness.

Hoffman’s talent moved him rapidly toward award-winning “prestige” pictures of the sort I tend to avoid: Capote, Doubt, Cold Mountain. His sterling credentials seemed to point him in that direction as well: a BFA in Drama from the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU, celebrated stage work performing Shakespeare, Eugene O’Neill, Sam Shepherd.

But even when he appeared in big commercial Hollywood fare, it was uncanny how he repeatedly chose movies that I wanted no part of: The Hunger Games franchise, Mission Impossible  III, Red Dragon. (Why the hell would anyone remake a brilliant film like Manhunter?)

And don’t get me started on my intense hatred of Paul Thomas Anderson films, which provided Hoffman two of his most spectacular roles in Magnolia and The Master.

Nevertheless, to see Philip Seymour Hoffman even in films that you hated was to come away awed. He used his physical bulk so fearlessly in The Master, for example, that he seemed able to enlarge or shrink it at will before your eyes. He projected impressive, solid, squared-off dimensions earlier in the film, and then allowed his blockiness to degrade into loose flesh cinched embarrassingly into late-1940s leisure-wear, as the character’s hollow hucksterism and creepy sexuality emerged.

Hoffman was a true body-actor. No doubt his athleticism and devotion to sports in his youth helped him toward the remarkable physical control he displays in all his performances. In an era when so many leading men and women seem unable to act at all below the neck, Hoffman’s gestures and stances sear themselves into your memory. I didn’t much care for Capote, but I still remember precise Hoffman postures. One was the too-constrained, too-still way he held himself in, with his large square head tilted uncomfortably back, in those repeated long-held shots of Truman Capote sitting alone in the small airplane to and from his jailhouse visits to the In Cold Blood killers who infatuated him.

Hoffman has always acknowledged his “torturous” struggle to be great at his chosen profession. He discussed the physical difficulty of achieving his Oscar-winning performance as Truman Capote in a 2008 New York Times interview:

Playing Capote took a lot of concentration. I prepared for four and a half months. . . Because I was holding my body in a way it doesn’t want to be held and because I was speaking in a voice that my vocal cords did not want to do, I had to stay in character all day. Otherwise, I would give my body the chance to bail on me.

To me, the revelatory Hoffman performance is as Brandt in The Big Lebowski. Hoffman claimed he was terrified to audition for the Coens and so, with his typical bravery as a performer, he swung for the fences:

It’s the Coen brothers, and you never think you’re going to get to work with people like that. I thought I’d never get the part. So I wanted to do something very weird. I went in and started ranting and raving and they were laughing their asses off. I was petrified but, I figured, at least they laughed a lot.

In Hoffman’s performance as Brandt, the unctuous toady-secretary to splenetic Los Angeles tycoon Jeffrey Lebowski, his bold insight into the ways action reveals character comes across with almost painful clarity in every detail. You can hear Brandt’s unctuous pride in his position expressed in his practiced, overly mellifluous speech as he shows the Dude (Jeff Bridges) a wall full of plaques honoring “Mr. Lebowski’s” achievements:

They are the Little Lebowski Urban Achievers, inner city children of promise but without the necessary means for ahh, necessary means for a higher education.

It is just after this repeated-phrase interval that the Dude begins more and more lingeringly touching the plaques while Brandt is discreetly trying to stop him, throwing Brandt off his rhythm and propelling him into a flurry of grimaces, tie-adjustments, and shoulder hitches, until he’s finally forced to say in a mild, pained mutter, “Please ah, please don’t touch that.” Hoffman’s hands hover protectively over the plaques as if Brandt were trying to magically undo the taint of the Dude’s rude hippie fingers.

Hoffman gives Brandt inadvertently expressive hands for a character who looks as if he’d been born in a buttoned-down suit and spectacles, his whole being constrained and dedicated to ingratiating himself with the boss and preserving a good front. Remember the tight, anxious flipper-like motions of Brandt’s two hands when the boss’ trophy wife makes her offer to the Dude to “suck your cock for a thousand dollars”?

Hoffman’s tense flapping hands accompany an equally mortified and strenuously fake laugh pushed through the nose to the point that his nostrils flare and contract noticeably with the effort. It’s as if Brandt’s whole stiff body were trying to expel this appalling breach of decorum:

Aah-hahahahaha. Wonderful woman. We’re all, we’re all very fond of her. Very free-spirited.

And later, when Brandt ushers the Dude back into Jeffrey Lebowski’s presence to witness the old man’s phony performance of grief at losing the trophy-wife to kidnappers, Hoffman sticks out his arm theatrically and ducks his head down almost underneath it to indicate the depths of Brandt’s flamboyantly echoed grief.

Since I first saw Hoffman as Brandt in The Big Lebowski, I’d always hoped he’d do more comedies. He had a remarkable talent for insinuating humor into dramatic performances as well, of course, but that’s not the same thing. Sadly, today we all have our regrets about the Hoffman performances we hoped for but will never see. Then again, we’re all describing our favorite Hoffman moments in our favorite Hoffman film performances that we’re lucky enough to have seen, and can see again.  This seems like the best kind of tribute to his genius.