Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Philip Seymour Hoffman (1967 - 2014) - a retrospective

There's already talk that he's the best actor of my generation..I don't exactly agree but he's certain among the best.  The idea of being one "best" actor bothers me a bit.  I thought I'd go through his career and recall some of my thoughts about his more noteworthy performances.

Going through his filmography, I was repeatedly impressed by just how many great films Hoffman has been involved with.  In this post, I'll highlight some of his most noteworthy work.  A lot of his work was as part of large ensembles, but even then Hoffman always held his own.

Scent of a Woman (1992)

Scent of a Woman comes across as a vehicle designed almost entirely to get Al Pacino an Oscar (which he did end up winning).  Pacino plays a blind veteran determined to go on a trip to New York for one last bash before he kills himself.  Chris O'Donnell plays the poor scholarship kid at a prep school faced with a dilemma.  Philip Seymour Hoffman played one of his schoolmates in a classic PSH fashion as the insecure, pampered, clever but empty schoolkid who specializes at making sarcastic comments and pulling pranks but ultimately stands for very little.  A small role, but for those of us who knew (and disliked) the spoiled preppy culture, he came across as very authentic.

Nobody's Fool (1994), Hard Eight (1996), Twister (1996)

Good roles in all of these, but minor in all of these.  PSH showed that he could keep up with some of the best around: in Nobody's Fool he shared the screen with Paul Newman and Bruce Willis, Hard Eight featured Philip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly, Sam Jackson and Gwyneth Paltrow.  Twister, well, didn't have quite the same level of actors, but PSH stood out among the mob of geeks working with Helen Hunt.
I highly recommend Hard Eight, a very early Paul Thomas Anderson film.  It's a great late-night TV movie.

Boogie Nights (1997)

A real breakthrough role in a great ensemble picture directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.  PSH played Scotty, a guy working in the porn industry who worshipped Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) and tried to hang out with Dirk and John C. Reilly's Reed Rothchild.  Really great cast, also including Burt Reynolds, Julianne Moore, Don Cheadle, Heather Graham, Luis Guzman, William H. Macy, and Alfred Molina.  No single character owned the movie -- let's face it, Wahlberg was decent but the supporting cast really made this film work.

The Big Lebowski (1998)

A great Coen Brothers' film, featuring Jeff Bridges as the Dude.  I'm going to assume I don't need to say much about this one.  It's become a cult classic.  PSH plays The Big Lebowski's major domo, a guy named Brandt.  Has some really good scenes with Bridges and David Huddleston (who plays the title character).  Big Lebowski barks, The Dude abides, and Brandt negotiates the waters between.

Magnolia (1999)

A third PTA film, and another great ensemble work.  PSH plays Phil Parma, the nurse attending Earl  Partridge (Jason Robards), a man dying of cancer.  I haven't seen this one in years - really deserves another viewing.  Here he's on the phone looking for Earl's son, Frank (played by Tom Cruise).

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

PSH revives his ability to play the sarcastic, pampered, dissatisfied rich kid that we saw earlier in Scent of a Woman.  In Ripley, he plays Freddie Miles, college buddy of Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law), who's the target of the title character's (Matt Damon's) scheming.  Ultimately I don't love this film, but I think in retrospect the problem is that Damon just doesn't work as Ripley.  PSH, in contrast, is perfect as the sneering Freddie, a guy who thinks that Ripley is clearly an up-jumping fraud.

State and Main (2000)

PSH got a rare chance to play a romantic lead in a comedy, playing the screenwriter Joseph Turner White in this David Mamet production about a movie company invading a small New England town to film a movie.  Again, an ensemble film with W.H. Macy as the director, Rebecca Pidgeon as the romantic interest, Alec Baldwin and Sarah Jessica Parker as the leads in the movie, Ricky Jay as somebody, etc.  An enjoyable small film, though this role isn't really the kind that Hoffman really excelled at.

Almost Famous (2000)

Another supporting role in a film with a large cast.  This time PSH plays Lester Bangs, the writer who advises the teenager William Miller as he starts out in rock journalism.  A small role, but he has some great screen time.

Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

And another Paul Thomas Anderson film, this time starring Adam Sandler (!) as a guy trying to overcome the bullying of his sisters and Emily Watson (!!) as his love interest.  Hoffman plays a guy who runs a sex hotline that ends up being the main antagonist as he tries to shake down the Sandler character.  Hoffman is again great as the cynical slick operator, the predator on the innocent and weak.  

Shut up!  Shut up!  Shut shut shut shut shut up!
Shut up!

Red Dragon (2002)

After the great success of Silence of the Lambs, the producers naturally followed that up by producing Hannibal, which was also a success.  This led to a remake of Red Dragon, the first Lecter book by Thomas Harris, which had previously been filmed as Michael Mann's Manhunter.  The remake was made to give Hopkins a third Lecter film, even though it's the first book of the series.  Edward Norton plays the lead, investigator Will Graham.  Hoffman plays Freddy Lounds, the greasy tabloid reporter who previously had published photos of Graham after he'd been attacked by Lecter, and who is used by Graham as they try to set up the "Tooth Fairy", the serial killer of this book (Lecter is in jail the whole time).  Hoffman is again great as a greasy, clever, cynical guy with pudgy hands and a petty mind.

Cold Mountain (2003)

Hoffman played the Reverend Veasey, a bit of a fallen soul, who hooks up with Jude Law's main character as he makes his way back from the war (the American Civil War) that he's deserting.  Another small role, but memorable for its moral and emotional complexity.

Capote (2005)

I have mixed feelings about Philip Seymour Hoffman's performance as the title character in Capote.  He plays Truman Capote as he's investigating the murders in Kansas that became the subject matter for his non-fiction book In Cold Blood.  Certainly Hoffman deserved an Oscar by this point, and his treatment of Capote is something to watch.  But I dislike the tendency of the Academy to reward biopics.  Often they are less compelling than actual fiction, and it feels like the voters are rewarding a film for recognizing somebody that they hold in high esteem, and not for the intrinsic properties of the film itself.  Recent biopics that have been (IMHO) overrated include A Beautiful Mind, The King's Speech, The Aviator, The Queen, The Blind Side, The Social Network, Moneyball, The Iron Lady, Lincoln, and Argo.  Mind you, there are some very good films in this bunch.  I just feel that there tends to be a bias to overrate the film.

In any case, this is supposed to be a post about PSH.  A big issue with Capote is that this film was followed a year later by the film Infamous, which starred Toby Jones as Capote and basically went over the same ground.  In some ways I prefer the latter film, in some way the former.

Basically while I feel like it was a good performance, I don't think it was his best.

Mission Impossible III (2006)

PSH reunited with Magnolia co-star Tom Cruise to play the baddie in this action film.  As villains go, Hoffman was one of the better ones.  Certainly more compelling than Dougray Scott was in MI II.  Not much more to say.

This is pretty bad ass...

A far cry from Phil Parma, eh?

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007)

OK, we've finally reached my favorite PSH film.  Some minor spoilers coming.

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Andy Hanson, the older brother in a badly dysfunctional family.  He's got a bad coke habit, which he's been funding by embezzling from his company.  But when his department is facing an audit, he needs to find some money, fast.  So he convinces his brother Hank (played by Ethan Hawke) to commit a robbery of a jewelry store.

Their parents' jewelry store.

It's supposed to be an easy job, as on Saturday mornings the store is only staffed by an elderly woman.  And Hank is supposed to only go in with a fake gun.

But the plan goes horribly awry - Hank is too chicken to do the job himself, so he brings in a thug to help him.  And instead of only facing old Doris, their mom is at the store.  And Mom knows where the gun is.

Just a brilliant plot, with plenty of recriminations after the disaster befalls the family.  Andy has to deal with his life-long hostility towards his father (played brilliantly by Albert Finney) who has always favored Hank.  And to further muddy the waters, Andy's wife, Gina (played by Marisa Tomei), is having an affair with Hank.  Just a brilliant character study in the mold of a Greek tragedy, with the entire family heading towards inevitable disaster.  Sidney Lumet's last film.

As Andy Hanson, PSH channels a furious contempt mixed with arrogance and self-pity, all of which motivate him along his terrible path.

To set up this scene, this comes on the heels of the father apologizing to Andy, but before all the details become widely known...

Charlie Wilson's War (2007)

A Tom Hanks vehicle with him as the title character, Congressman Charlie Wilson.  Charlie Wilson was one of the drivers behind the policy of supporting the insurgents in Afghanistan in the early '80s as they fought the Soviet occupation.  PSH plays Gust Avrakotos, a 2nd generation American of Greek descent and life long case officer working for the CIA.  Gust convinces Charlie that these Afghans need American help and ends up coordinating the aid.  Hoffman is typically brilliant as he channels the cynicism combined with patriotism that motivates a lifer who continues to work for the system in spite of it being run by political doofuses.

Synechdoche, NY (2008)

A Charlie Kaufmann film.  PSH plays the main character, a playwright named Caden Cotard.  The film starts simply enough, with Caden having serious marital problems with his wife (Catherine Keener), who ends up leaving him and taking their daughter with her to Berlin.  But then Caden wins a Fellowship that gives him the resources to stage his dream project: a massive, larger-than life play.  Cotard takes over a warehouse and starts casting people to play the story of his life.  At this point, the plot becomes a bit difficult to describe.  Caden casts people to shadow real-life characters, and then casts people to shadow his shadows.  He has affairs with different woman, pines for his daughter, and through all of this his own life becomes increasingly surreal.  For example, one of the women lives in an apartment that is constantly on fire.

It's a fascinating film.  A very difficult film to digest.  Not a film that was well-received by the public.  Those of us who enjoyed Charlie Kaufmann's earlier works like Being John Malkovich and Adaptation found Synechdoche, NY a bit hard to comprehend.  But Hoffman was brilliant in any case.  I  may not have understood exactly what Kaufmann was trying to say, but Hoffman's acting carried the film.

Note: the interviewee is played by Tom Noonan, who played the Tooth Fairy in Manhunter, the first film version of Red Dragon.

Doubt (2008)

One of his must-see films.  Hoffman plays a priest, Father Brendan Flynn, accused of having too close of a relationship with one of his students.  The accusations are made by Sister Aloysius, played by Meryl Streep.  At this point it's worth saying that this is one of Streep's better roles.  And I'm talking about Streep here.  Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius become engaged in a conflict about the relationship - a bit of a bureaucratic fight at a Catholic school.  And one of the key aspects of this film is the presence of doubt.  Sister Aloysius doesn't really have any hard evidence to condemn Father Flynn.  And yet she is certain that her accusations are correct.  The film leaves the truth of the central accusation unresolved.  

For me, what's most impressive here is how easily Hoffman keeps up with the great Streep in their conflicts.

Great job, lost the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor to Heath Ledger's Joker, which was probably the best supporting role of the decade.  No shame there.

The Invention of Lying (2009)

PSH has a small cameo as Ricky Gervais's bartender, Jim.

Moneyball (2011)

The movie based (loosely) on the Billy Beane book about his work as the GM of the Oakland A's baseball team.  Brad Pitt plays Beane, and PSH plays the team's manager, Art Howe.  He plays the manager as an old-school, seat-of-the-pants manager who disagrees with many of Beane's suggestion.  It's a small role that neither represents Howe particularly fairly, nor does it test Hoffman's skill very much.  But Hoffman did get an Oscar nomination out of it.  Oh wait, no.  Jonah Hill did.  (facepalm)

The Ides of March (2011)

The Ides of March is a story about a junior political campaign manager, Stephen Meyers, played by Ryan Gosling, trying to get George Clooney's Mike Morris the Democratic nomination for the Presidential race. Hoffman plays Paul Zara, the senior campaign manager, Meyers's boss.  This is another role that taps into Hoffman's capacity for playing the world-weary and cynical.  Not a great film - not up the level of Doubt, for example, but Hoffman is adept at playing this kind of role.  

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

I've written already about this film, mostly to praise Jennifer Lawrence, but also to wonder why it's getting ignored by the various award shows.  It seems to suffer either from being an action film, or a film based on young adult fiction, or for being a blockbuster.  In any case, it's the second film of the series, and Hoffman is brought in to play the crucial role of the new Games Master, Plutarch Heavensbee.  His role is relatively small, but he does two things very well: communicating authoritarian cynicism in his dealings with President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and interacting with the young Katniss in an ambiguous fashion that allows him to keep his true motivations secret until the film's conclusion.  I'm really looking forward to Mockingjay.  I expect Hoffman will continue to be brilliant.

No footage from Catching Fire, which hasn't hit video yet.

Works I have yet to see

I  have not seen all of Hoffman's films.  Here's a short list of some that I hope to see soon:

Flawless (1999) - plays a drag queen neighbor to Robert De Niro's cop 

The Savages (2007) - PSH and Laura Linney play siblings faced with the need to take care of their estranged, ailing father.

Jack Goes Boating (2010) - PSH also directs this film.

The Master (2012) - Another PTA film, with PSH playing a cult leader who takes in an insecure war veteran. 

A Late Quartet (2012)  PSH plays second violin in a string quartet.  Christopher Walken plays the cello, Catherine Keener the viola, and Mark Ivanir plays first violin.  Hoffman wants to play first violin for a change of pace, while Walken is facing serious illness and retirement.  Looks very good.

I know I'm missing some...


We've already lost two of these five.  

Update:  I forgot Pirate Radio (2009)!!

No comments: