Friday, March 7, 2014

Philip Seymour Hoffman Tribute


On February 2nd, police opened Philip Seymour Hoffman’s New York apartment and found him dead with a heroin needle sticking out of his arm and about 50 bags of the stuff nearby. And I was surprised – not only by the circumstances of his death, but by the outpouring of affection for the man and his talent. I had no idea so many people really loved him that much. While I knew he was a well known actor, I guess I always figured he was more of an “actor’s actor,” doing roles in obscure films and only occasionally breaking out into something real mainstream. But it turns out the world was watching after all, and I couldn’t be happier – to see people mourning a favorite actor of mine along with me gave me hope that his work will live on and become immortal.

These are some of the greatest roles Hoffman did. Let’s dive into a complex man and a complex career.

Capote


Well, you knew this had to be here – it’s the only film he scored an Oscar for, after all. Capote is about the real life troubles of author Truman Capote, as he tries to get to know two murderers to complete what he believes will be his masterpiece – “In Cold Blood.”

This is just a great movie. It’s a very emotional film, due largely to Hoffman’s performance as Capote – portrayed here as a really tender, effeminate guy who wears his heart on his sleeve at some times and at others just seems to be an enigma wrapped in a mystery. The viewer is given the full sense of what it’s like to be an artist. Capote is arrogant, vain, prideful and yet also very concerned and in love with what he’s doing. Despite his clear self-obsession and propensity for making everything strictly about him, Capote is portrayed as a really deep, passionate artist. He cares about his work. He cares about getting it right and about doing it as authentically as possible.


The assignment he’s on in this movie, though, begins to break him – the case of two murderers who slaughtered an entire family. Capote attempts to get to know the murderers personally, but as he does, he just gets sucked further into the delays and appeals of the court system. And without their proper end – execution – Capote can’t finish his book.

It’s a very literary film, with the relationships between Capote and the other characters being so subtle and underplayed that there’s miles and miles of subtext beneath the surface – like his jealousy-fraught relationship with Harper Lee, who is on the cusp of stardom with “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I always think a good film can make relationships from people which are so ordinary seem so intriguing, and Capote definitely does that.

See also the relations between Capote and the killers – also really well done, as the film straddles a fine line between Capote’s genuine fascination with them and with the idea that he’s just doing it as a mirror for his own egomania – he constantly touts how fascinating they are, but really it’s just a thin veil for “watch how much mystery and intrigue I can pull out of these two depraved lunatics.” As the film goes on and the appeals delay their executions more and more, the mask slips away and Capote’s true intentions are revealed: he’s doing it all for his art.

An aching and human film with lots of beautiful visuals, Capote tells the story of what it is to be an artist – of the highs as well as the lows. If you’re an artist of any kind, whether it’s writing, painting, filmmaking or whatever, you will find a lot to relate to here. Just go see it already. Stop reading this and go do it if you haven’t.

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead


This movie is a real violent, depraved scorcher of a film, about two brothers who conspire to rob their parents’ jewelry store because they’re hard up for cash. It goes horribly wrong, and things spiral out of control.

Directed by the luminous Sidney Lumet – who was over 80 when he made this – this is a fast paced drama with a lot on the line at all times. The stress the characters go through is so thick it will really make you uncomfortable. While I won’t lie and tell you this is pleasant to watch at any point, it really has an effect on you. The whole point is that you’re watching what these guys are driven to out of the sheer desperation and shittiness of their own lives. They may not have been horrible people before, but here they are at their absolute worst. One of the brothers, played by Ethan Hawke, has mountains of debt to pay in child support to the bitchiest wife and bitchiest daughter in the world. The other, played by Hoffman, is about to be tangled up in legal problems that could send him to jail.

It’s the failure of the American dream – these two guys who have worked decent jobs and tried to make it are crumbling, and they have to turn to crime. It’s a kind of childish solution, but one that everyone thinks about … “I really hate this situation, I want to just get a lot of money and go away and never come back.” But it’s what these guys have come to. Like that guy from “Network” (another Lumet film), they are mad as hell and don’t want to take it anymore.


Hoffman’s character in this is a perpetually angry, peevish man who feels slighted by his lack of control in life as well as trying to live up to his father (played by Albert Finney). He really relishes in squeezing the life out of people weaker than him and getting any little sliver of power he can – the marks of a pathetic man whose life has so very little power.

Unfairly indicting these characters for their flaws isn’t the point either though.  They’re human – they may be bad humans, but they have their own motivations that go far beyond a good-or-evil thing. You can really see the disillusionment in Hoffman’s eyes when he’s indulging in his secret heroin vice in some shithole apartment. And the hope when he’s in bed with his wife, talking about vacationing in Brazil.

There’s a lot more to this film that I can’t talk about here, because it would spoil too much of this great film. If you haven’t seen Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, I highly recommend it – a twisted and brilliantly destructive drama, with a great Hoffman performance.

Doubt


Based off of a popular play, Doubt is an extraordinarily acted film that actually makes me hate main character Meryl Streep in it – she is so convincing as the super-strict, rod-up-her-ass Mother Superior character that I felt disgusted just watching her! Brilliant performance, though.

The story is about a priest that begins to be suspected of inappropriate actions with a young black boy in the altar boys. Hoffman, playing the priest, is actually fairly in the background here. That’s how the film builds suspense as to whether or not he is really guilty. When you do see him, he seems really cool – the archetype of a “cool Catholic,” talking about all kinds of secular integrations and all manner of forgiveness and inclusion. He’s the kind of guy who you’d want to be your pastor.

In contrast, Streep’s character is the kind of person who makes a lot of people turn away from the Church. She’s judgmental, stiff and cold, never really showing any kind of affection or humanity for the bulk of the film, save for her declaration that she “knows people.” The audience is on Hoffman’s side for most of the film because there is no evidence to the contrary. It just seems like Streep is being overly malicious for no reason.


I really can’t spoil much, so I’ll just say that the way the film unfolds is pretty brilliant. I like that it never really gives you much indication either way as to what actually happened with Hoffman and the boy, mostly leaving it up to your imagination. The film plays with expectations by having Streep’s accusations be more of what you see than any wrongdoing on Hoffman’s part. With Hoffman, all you see is him being a really, really cool guy.

In a lesser film, you’d get some big climax where it’s revealed one way or the other if Hoffman ever really did anything to the kid – it would be very unsubtle, which is the opposite of the way the movie really turned out. I like the uncertainty – I like the doubt.

We really lost a great talent here. He was versatile in his choice of roles and always seemed to throw himself into every performance. He was just a stellar actor and every time he did a role, I always knew it meant there would at least be one good thing in the film: his performance. I haven’t seen all of his movies. Hell; a lot of the time he just did small side character roles. It was almost like he didn’t want to draw unnecessary attention to himself – or that he didn’t feel he needed to, which is something I wish more actors would do. He struck me as a guy who just loved acting, so much that he would just do a role because of the experience it would bring him.

I mean, who could forget him as that weirdo butler guy in The Big Lebowski?


Or as the villainous phone sex hotline pimp Mattress Man in Punch Drunk Love?


Or as the political advisor in Ides of March?


He just had so many cool roles. It’s a shame we lost him so young. I do not want to romanticize drug use or heroin use or anything like that – what Hoffman did was a sign of a man who had serious problems, and hopefully we will find ways to better help people like him in the future. In a way it’s the curse of great artists though – can we ever have someone who could dive so fully into a role that isn’t self destructive? It seems to me that self destructiveness goes hand-in-hand with the kind of immersive, chameleonic acting talent Hoffman had. It was like he was trying to lose himself in his roles, trying to escape whatever demons drove him to drugs in the first place.

He was a great talent. RIP Philip Seymour Hoffman.

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