Monday, February 03, 2014

Phil Goes Riding

     It was Groundhog Day, 2014. An obligatory Winter storm front was moving East, and actor Philip Seymour Hoffman lay dead on a bathroom floor with a needle in his arm. A saddened friend texted: "why does this always have to happen to the good ones?" I had recently written a post about Heath Ledger rightfully deserving Best Actor for Brokeback Mountain (2005) the year Hoffman won for Capote. There was another film based on Truman Capote's famous writing of In Cold Blood (first published in 1966) starring British actor Toby Jones (Infamous, 2006). It was an inferior production compared to the Hoffman vehicle, but Jones was born to play Capote. If I had to say Hoffman was born to play one particular film role, it was one we hadn't yet seen. Which is the biggest tragedy of all.

Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master
Of all the Hoffman performances I have seen, The Master (2012) will be the one I remember most. A fiercely committed roman à clef molded cautiously around the life of science fiction dime novelist and future Church of Scientology founder-arch charlatan, L. Ron Hubbard. Hoffman's portrayal of the great intellectual fraud was breathtaking to behold, and only minutely surpassed by his alter-ego character in the film played equally brilliant and emotionally unbridled by Joaquin Phoenix. Although it isn't stated overtly in the film, I felt on repeated viewings that the two characters were actually intended to be two halves of the same demented psyche; one ruled by logic and the other by animal instinct. The great thing about the film is how effortlessly Hoffman and Phoenix play in tandem with each other, weaving one hell of a narrative mind game. It's a rare thing of beauty to see a modern film put that much complexity on the table.

Philip Seymour Hoffman (1967 - 2014)
There were other great Hoffman performances too. Flawless (1999) was tragically underrated. Love Liza (2002) was a critically polarizing tour de force. Along Came Polly (2004) contained the best "shart" joke occurring in the moment on film to date. There were the classic repressed/weirdo roles in Boogie Nights (1997) and Happiness (1998); the douchebags in Punch-Drunk Love (2002) and Hard Eight (1996); the good buddy in 25th Hour (2002); the sniveling lackey in The Big Lebowski (1998); the Lumet film Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007); Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York (2008); John Patrick Shanley's Doubt (2008); P. T. Anderson's Magnolia (1999). Perhaps the most prescient film he ever made was Mary and Max (2009) supplying the voice of an obese, traumatized New Yorker who dies alone in his apartment staring up at the ceiling. Personally, I have to rank this loss right up there with that of John Ritter (1948 - 2003), another bright light who left shore too soon, and without much notice. Hoffman's frequent costar Philip Baker Hall probably eulogized him best.

We still have the stylish John le Carré-based spy flick A Man Most Wanted (2014) from music video director turned feature helmer Anton Corbijn to look forward to, and perhaps a posthumous Oscar nod in the process. I have yet to see A Late Quartet (2012) or Hoffman's sole directorial effort Jack Goes Boating (2010). To be honest, I kind of want to save them for a rainy, Saturday afternoon. Don't ask me why. I guess I'm just sentimental like that.

So long, Master.