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Farewell to a master storyteller

lars logoI’ve spent this past week watching my favorite Philip Seymour Hoffman films. For such a young man (46), such an impressive body of work.

So many great performances.

Hoffman won the Oscar for Best Actor in 2005 for his inside-out portrayal of Truman Capote. It was a masterful capoteperformance by a special actor who did his homework, paid attention to detail, and left it all on the table.

I was never fortunate enough to see Hoffman on stage. Apparently his turn as Willie Loman in Mike Nichols’ recent revival of Death of a Salesman was as good as it gets on Broadway. Very sad now to realize I will never get a chance to see him on the boards.

He was also an accomplished theatre director.

It’s all so sad.

To quote the late acting teacher Sandy Meisner: “There are only a couple of things that really make a difference in an actor; intense concentration, the ability to personalize and care about what the character cares about, and the willingness to go for the jugular onstage.”

Ask Tom Hanks if Hoffman went for the jugular in Charlie Wilson’s War

Ask Cameron Crowe if Hoffman cared about what his character cared about in Almost Famous.

And ask Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, and Viola Davis if Hoffman exhibited intense concentration in Doubt .

My favorite Philip Seymour Hoffman performances come mostly from his long collaboration with director Paul Thomas Anderson. Beginning with his brief cameo as a loud-mouthed crap shooter in Hard Eightthen his pathetic porn crew groupie in Boogie Nights; and then as the wonderfully compassionate bedside hospice nurse in the brilliant Magnolia. A few years later he showed what a great villain he could be as the degenerate phone sex extortionist opposite Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk LoveAll of those roles would pale in comparison, however, to his tour de force performance as the religious cult leader Lancaster Dodd in The Master.

What a powerful actor. To call Philip Seymour Hoffman “one of the best actors of his generation” is an understatement. He was one of the absolute best actors we are likely to ever see. That rare actor, like Gene Hackman, who could literally do it all, seamlessly shifting between drama and comedy (although rarely), leads and ensemble work.

Hoffman understood the power of stillness. That if he prepared his character thoroughly the story would come through his lonely eyes.

His intellect was never in question. The mental capacity of his characters seemed boundless. It was well known that Hoffman, born in Rochester, New York, Phil Hoffmanloved the theatre above all else; and that the stage was where he took some of his biggest risks.

All I have to go on is my appreciation for what I saw of him on the screen. And what I saw was always present, always engaged entirely in the story of the film. He was a supreme storyteller.

Take a look at the wedding party scene in the first act of The Master, as Lancaster Dodd makes an unorthodox toast to his daughter. Brilliant.

He was equally effective in his supporting roles. Early work in Scent of a Woman and The Talented Mr. Ripley made it obvious to all that he had the chops.

A friend of mine put it this way: “Even in his smaller roles, he made a difference from the edges of the room.”

I love that.

Fellow New York stage actor and collaborator, Eric Bogosian said this: “Courage was his forte, always. Phil set his bar on the highest rung, on a rung above the highest rung. He pushed himself relentlessly until finally his efforts virtually redefined the very endeavor we call acting.

I heard Gary Oldman interviewed the day after Hoffman’s death. I found what he said to be spot on: “Philip was that wonderful combination of vulnerable and dangerous.”

But his default emotional essence – at least from his film work – was a discontented loneliness.

“It’s the hardest,” says Hoffman’s Capote in an early scene from his Oscar-winning arc. “when someone has a notion about you and it’s impossible to convince them otherwise.”

All we have is a notion of what was going on in his life. His struggles. His addiction. His last few hours.

I’m going to leave it that – and keep watching his films.

The role that always comes to mind first is from Magnolia. Phil the hospice nurse. The sensitively thoughtful way he sat bedside to Jason Robards (his final film) as he slowly slipped away. Every moment nuanced with such casual, comforting behavior. He made it look so easy to just sit – and listen – and feel with true empathy as Robards’ rants slid from bitterness to regret to dementia. The Magnoliaway Hoffman handled the mini-mart girl on the telephone, asking if they had “peanut butter…a loaf of bread…cigarettes…do you have…Playboy?”

And then, finally, how he handles Tom Cruise’s entrance at the end of the film. Calm, in control but still deferential. Generous.

“When I think how good my book can be I can hardly breathe,” Hoffman’s Capote confides in Harper Lee in Capote.

Well…

When I think of all the work we will now not get to see from this amazing actor – I can hardly breathe.

4 thoughts on “Farewell to a master storyteller

  1. Beautiful. I am so incredibly shocked and saddened by his death and, as somebody put it, we didn’t lose somebody, we were robbed.

  2. What a wonderful testiment to an incredible actor. Mr Hoffman was such an incredible actor.. I enjoyed him in Mission Impossible II but I have committed myself to watching more of his pieces.. RIP

    • Any actor will learn so much from studying his work, Casey. His ability to let things land, absorb, and then respond truthfully – so nimble. His outbursts always in complete control. A real pro.

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