Sunday, February 2, 2014

Top 5: Great Philip Seymour Hoffman Performances

The news today was devastating: Philip Seymour Hoffman dead at 46. It's such a shock that it takes a while to sink in; the realisation that you will never again see a new PSH film.

What we have left are his collected works to date. His memory, and his fans, will be well served by this, as its a remarkable filmography. Everyone will have their favourites, these are 5 of mine:


Almost Famous

Playing real people is a tricky tightrope for actors. Play them too nice and they’re accused of hagiography, but push the boundaries of the characterisation and they get damned for not staying true to the real person’s spirit. And this is to say nothing of the technical aspects; mastering their accent, manner, foibles, catchphrases, tics and bad habits. This stands double for a man like the late music critic Lester Bangs, who has a legion of hardcore fans just waiting to stomp on any actor who fucks him up.  And Bangs only has a small, although crucial, part to play in this, Cameron Crowe’s ingratiating coming of age story, meaning that there’s even less scope for the performance to stray. But Hoffman nails his handful of scenes, giving us a quick blast of Bang’s talent, temper and passion. His world weary advice to the young journalist wannabe William Miller rings true, and not just for him: 


Boogie Nights

PSH wasn't a household name when this came out. Actually, almost none of the amazingly talented cast, nor the director, were when this exploded across the arthouse circuit in 1997. And Hoffman could very easily have gotten lost, given the large ensemble and the number of flashy parts that he was competing for attention with.  But for me, his Scotty J was one of the most memorable turns in the film, and a real standout in his career as a whole. Playing a scruffy, troubled, flaky misfit (the first three not traits he would revisit on screen too often) who has a closeted crush on handsome porn star Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg), Hoffman brings emotional weight to a part that may have been a footnote.  The pathetic hopefulness of his character – check the scene where he buys a flashy car like Diggler’s to try and impress him – and his dogged loyalty are still eye catching, all these years later. The old adage rings true; for a great actor, there are no small parts.


Mary and Max

One of Hoffman’s great strengths as an actor was his versatility, and this is on full display in his voice work in this wonderfully effecting, low budget animated feature. Hoffman plays Max, a New Yorker with Aspergers who somehow strikes up a pen-friendship with a young Australian girl thousands of miles away. Their letter writing – and package sending – over many years, recounted in alternating stretches of voice over, encompasses many ups and downs in the characters lives and touches on issues most animated films would hurry to avoid.  Hoffman’s voice is an unrecognisable, throaty rasp but he manages to impart a stunning range of emotions to his character’s monologues, a difficult task considering Max is mostly monotone and deadpan. The bittersweet final scenes – ‘You are my best friend… you are my only friend…’ – make me think about everything in life and movies that I love.


Synecdoche, New York

Some of PSH’s best performances came in the movies of the most cutting edge of contemporary directors, where it’s easy to imagine participants on both sides of the camera egged each other on. One of these, acclaimed screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s directing debut, provides him with a rich lead role and it is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine any other actor pulling off so complex a part so well.  His Caden Cotard is a repressed, emotionally stunted playwright, struggling to come to grips with his latest theatrical epic and at war with all of the elements of his personal life. He writes himself into his play… and then writes himself, writing himself into his play… and so on down the rabbit hole. Meanwhile, his ex-wife may, or may not, have stolen his daughter away to Paris, the house he lives in is perpetually on fire and his depression may have killed all life on Earth. Cotard is surrounded by a huge retinue of people, but is entirely alone, and is unsure if any of the things he experiences are actually occurring. Is he crazy? Or just suffering from writer’s block? Is it all in his head?  Or just some of it? Considering how hard it is to describe this long, challenging film, imagine what it must have been like to portray this character. There are many balls to juggle here, and each one of them presents a conundrum. But Hoffman rises to the task in a million subtle ways, becoming a living embodiment of Kaufman’s endless parade of ideas in the process.


The Master

Hoffman’s fifth go round with Paul Thomas Anderson gave the writer/director a chance to create for him a really juicy part, and the results are nothing short of spectacular. Playing Lancaster Dodd, a pseudo-mystic loosely modeled on L. Ron Hubbard, PSH appears about half an hour into the movie and lights up the screen from the moment he describes himself as ‘a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher, but, above all… a man. A hopelessly inquisitive man, just like you.’ Although this movie is not a one man show, and part of the excitement of watching Hoffman in his finest hour is witnessing his bombastic ego-maniac crash head first into the alcoholic WWII veteran played by Joaquin Phoenix (also in career best form).  Their unlikely friendship powers the movie and the screen is almost too small to contain it; sparks fly, insults and bodyblows are traded, psychological depths are plunged. Witness the amazing scene when the two meet for the first time and Dodd interrogates his new acolyte about his life, for just one example. But Hoffman has countless great moments of his own – singing to a room of naked society groupies, shooting down a critic from the press, changing his life theories on the fly – and delivers a wonderful, layered, intellectually stimulating performance that will be dissected for as long as movies are screened.  Aptly, The Master shows a true master at the top of his game, and it is for all of us a tragedy that this would prove one of the last times we would see it. You’d have to think he had many great performances left.

Goodnight sweet prince.

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