2 February 2014
Invercargill

My tribute to Phillip Seymour Hoffman, the great American actor who died this week aged 46.

I’ve just spent the last couple of days travelling from wintry central London to a small town at the bottom of New Zealand, via a few more glamorous sun-drenched locations (San Francisco, Auckland) on the way. International travel takes us into a weird, dream-like state, not quite awake but far from sleep, light-headed and placid as if under anesthetic, and not fully able to orient ourselves in our surroundings. With smartphones and TV screens everywhere nowadays, it’s easier to swim up from the depths of our addled cobwebby brains and up to the surface again, to see where we are and what time zone we’re in. Failing that, there’s the remembrance of things past, that pulls us back and forth from the present.

I landed in Christchurch this morning, and walked through its impressive new airport, a sunlit and confident riposte to the earthquake that destroyed much of the central city three years ago. I was reminded of the deaths of the 185 people who died in the quake, one of whom, a woman about my age, was supposed to have been a guest at the civil partnership ceremony of friends that I attended later that week. Deaths like those, sudden and shocking, pull us brutally and immediately back into the reality of our lives, reminding us of the fragility of our existence.

With that in mind, I was very saddened to read of the death of one of my favourite actors, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, whose death from a presumed drug overdose was all over my friends’ social media updates when I logged on this morning. Hoffman was 46, and to my mind, anyway, the pre-eminent actor of my generation, a plus-sized character actor with a talent to rival the great 1970s Method trio of De Niro, Streep and Pacino, and an inspiration to wannabe thespians everywhere that talent and versatility were more enduring virtues than clean-cut Hollywood good looks.

There’s something self-indulgent and a bit silly about mourning the death of someone you never knew, especially an actor, whom we erroneously imagine that we know because we’ve had a powerful emotional experience of their work. Yet I was struck this morning by how many of my Facebook friends and Twitter followers, many of them movie buffs, were also saddened by Hoffman”s death. There are a number of theories about what makes good acting, but for me, the best actors show us something truthful of themselves, even though it’s in a constructed and artificial environment. It’s this recognition of emotional truth that makes us feel close to actors, who function in the same way priests or shamans must have done in ancient cultures, channeling our emotions in a ritualised way.

The Hoff was a most unlikely looking movie star – heavy set, fat faced, sandy red-blond hair and a sleepy, rumpled looking expression that made him look (like me this morning) as if he’d just woken up after a 32 hour plane journey. Yet somehow he turned his bland Germanic features and unathletic looking body into an acting powerhouse, becoming an electrifying presence in everything he was in.

He first caught my eye in the late 1990s with some scene stealing supporting performances in indie films, usually playing deeply unattractive and unhappy losers and weirdos with vaguely sociopathic tendencies. He was a wonderfully sad and lovestruck boom operator in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, hanging with the studs and hopelessly in love with Mark Wahlberg’s sweet-faced porn star (well, weren’t we all). In Todd Solantz’s pitch black Happiness, he was funny and disturbing as a depressed, compulsively masturbating accountant who expressed violent rape fantasies about Lara Flynn Boyle. And he was perfectly cast in Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr Ripley as Freddie Miles, a nasty WASP frat boy who nonetheless manages to unmask Matt Damon’s fraudulent double identity. Hoffman’s character may have ended up being hit on the head by a statue of the emperor Hadrian, but the Hoff himself walked away with the movie in his back pocket.

For a while, it looked as though the Hoff would settle into a career of interesting, scene-stealing cameos and supporting performances, since he seemed to have neither the looks nor the easily categorisable persona required to take on Hollywood star roles. Fortunately for him, and for us, he came of age as an actor in the new golden period of American independent filmmaking, and created some brilliant, indelible performances. My favourite performance of his (well, maybe a close second to Ripley) was as Truman Capote in Bennett Miller’s biopic Capote. It’s a sober, austere film, covering the seven years of Capote’s life while he researched and wrote In Cold Blood. The Hoff’s performance is extraordinary, both for his physical transformation into a tiny effeminate Southerner, and for the clarity with which he outlined Capote’s strange mix of camp bravado, deep sadness and relentless pursuit of fame. In A O Scott’s fine review of Capote for the New York Times, he writes:

Capote is, principally, the story of a writer’s vexed, all-consuming relationship with his work, and therefore with himself. This makes for better drama than you might expect. Capote’s human connections are, for the most part, secondary and instrumental, which makes [Hoffman’s] performance all the more remarkable, since he must connect with the audience without piercing the membrane of his character’s narcissism.

It’s an astonishing piece of acting, a deeply sympathetic portrayal of a character who is (like Llewyn Davis, the fictional folk singer of the Coen Brothers’ wonderful new film) often deeply unsympathetic. In Capote, we watch as a talented writer makes a Faustian bargain to further his art and ambition, befriending a convicted killer to get close to his subject, and then discarding him and waiting for his execution so that he can finish his novel and publish. It’s this “moral abyss at the heart of the journalistic enterprise” (in Scott’s words) that finally destroys Capote. It’s not always pretty to watch, but Hoffman’s performance is utterly compelling throughout. I was struck by how sensitively he personified Capote’s exhibitionistic brand of camp, understanding intuitively that this was Capote’s weapon against the world, and a glittering carapace with which Capote could protect the wounded child he still fundamentally was. I rewatch Capote every year, and never fail to be dazzled by it.

The Hoff’s last great film role was as an L Ron Hubbard-inspired cult leader in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. It’s a role that seemed tailor-made to Hoffman’s mercurial talent, encompassing charm, majestic authority, and barely repressed white hot rage bordering on psychosis. In one scene, he and co-star Jouquin Phoenix are locked in adjoining prison cells. Phoenix’s character, the feral Freddie Quell, goes apeshit and destroys his cell, managing to rip the toilet out of the ground with his bare hands. In stark comparison, Hoffman is all calm and quiet authority, remonstrating with Quell to, well, quell his rage. The first time I saw the scene, I rolled my eyes slightly and thought “Method Actor Willy-Waving Extravaganza”. In subsequent rewatchings, I’ve warmed to the scene more. Self-indulgent though it is, it marks the high note of Anderson’s strange and disturbing take on the fuzzy Rorshasch ink blot that is American masculinity: disturbed, violent and only half aware of its capacity for self-destruction. The Hoff’s performance in The Master was, like everything else he did, acted with supreme self-confidence, a thespian’s flair for showmanship, and a deep understanding of human fraility and folly.

It feels quietly heartbreaking that we won’t get to see the Hoff age and grow into the maturity of his 50s, 60s and beyond. We’ll never get to see him do King Lear or do great work like 77 year-old Bruce Dern in Nebraska, though thank God that Mike Nichols had the good sense to have him play Willy Loman on Broadway in a revival of Death of A Salesman. It’s a sad day for actors and film lovers, and the unnecessary loss of a mighty talent.

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