Thoughts On The Headlines
The following words are a bit of a long-winded ramble about the death of one of my heroes this weekend. It’s taken a lot out of me to just get my thoughts into this level of cohesion, so don’t expect anything succinct, or ‘publishable’ – these are just a method of getting my feelings out there, writing whatever came naturally. In time, I think it’s better if I treat this situation this way, rather than try to make a quick-fix, sound-byte approved capsule of faux grief and holier than thou critical assumptions. One of my greatest inspirations has died suddenly, and I think I needed to deal with that somehow. Hope it helps some of you too.
Like much of the western world, I’ve been thinking a lot aboutPhilip Seymour Hoffman these past couple of days. In fairness, I thought about him a lot before these past couple of days too: my favourite actor never fell into the social media trap so there was no way of finding out what he was up to via Tweets – you had to google him occasionally and see what came up. Less than a week ago, I was catching up on the various Sundance interviews around God’s Pocket and A Most Wanted Man, the two forthcoming films which positioned him centre stage as their unique selling point that would no doubt come and go in the cinemas like so many of his critically acclaimed, art-house movies do. Or, rather, did, because he’s been taken from this world so suddenly.
My initial reaction was one of shock. Part of what had appealed to me about him was that he was an atypical Hollywood actor – the kind who would shun the limelight and shrug off acclaim. He was, he insisted, just doing his job, and when he wasn’t doing that job, he kept himself to himself and his beloved family.
Yet as that family prepares for their beloved one to be dragged through the tabloid muck for the first (and in an oddly comforting note, last) time, the thought that he was so susceptible to such a foolish downfall is as infuriating as it is heartbreaking. Here was a man who would chose his roles wisely, taking the parts which allowed him to lose himself within the characters on the page. A film takes the talents of so many individuals to reach an audience, and somehow he managed to seem like the most essential element, yet the first one likely to say that he wasn’t remotely essential all at once.
Despite having been aware of his career for many years, having seen various performances big and small, it was a role which has been perhaps overlooked in the years since its release that made me a fan of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Friends had caught his turn as a brash radio DJ known only as The Count in the underrated Richard Curtis Brit-com The Boat That Rocked, and given my background, and ‘if-you-squint-a-bit’ physical resemblance, decided he was essentially me in twenty years. Not saying a word of this to me until afterwards, they introduced me to the film, to see what I would make of it, and of him.
The Count,like all the characters in the film, was somewhat of a one-note character on the page: he existed to further the sitcom-esque mini-plots and push the lead narrative to its dramatic finale, yet in the hands of a master actor like Hoffman, he became so much more. Though he didn’t even have a proper name, it was hard not to fall in love with his ethos. All he wanted was to spread the joy of good music to the world, yet underneath it all, he was hiding from his own mortality and lack of security.
When it looks like the days of pirate radio could be coming to an end, he tells another character that these were the best days of their lives, and fills every single syllable with a new emotional resonance so you can feel his heart breaking. Though the film has a deliberately upbeat ending, the emotional impact of The Count’s actions after this scene stuck in my mind afterwards, possibly more than Richard Curtis ever thought they would. I was hooked.
Going back and re-discovering Philip Seymour Hoffman’s back catalogue in the years since has been an absolute pleasure. There were the well-sung classics, some of which I already adored – The Big Lebowski, for example, or Capote. There were supporting roles which stole the show, like that of timid Scotty in the flashy Boogie Nights. And there were headline performances which focused the dramatic weight of the film on Hoffman’s shoulders, like thriller Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead– an uncomfortable film to watch that, given his character’s drug addiction in the narrative, will be even more uncomfortable in retrospect.
And then there were the arthouse films. The kind which had smaller scale narratives, but were treated with the utmost respect by all concerned. As I grew older and got increasingly tired of mainstream Hollywood grot, I took solace in these kinds of movie, and the differing view on American life they offered. It wasn’t all glitz and glamour, it was every bit as drab as real life can be over on this side of the Pond, and while A-List blockbusters filled their films with thinly-sketched out personas upon which to hang a Joss Whedon esque quip, these films had ordinary people trying –and often failing – to do the right thing.
Of these,two in particular stood out for me. Tamara Jenkin’s 2007 film The Savages was a double-hander for Hoffman and Laura Linney, who played a pair of barely functional siblings forced to take care of their estranged father in the final months of his life. As they struggle to stay afloat, their father’s dementia finds them questioning every aspect of themselves, wondering where they went wrong, and both Hoffman and Linney are more than up to the task of making two incredibly selfish people immensely likeable, for all their flaws.
At the other end of the spectrum, was a little known 2009 Claymation, made in Australia by writer/director Adam Elliot. Mary And Max focuses on two unlikely pen pals hundreds of miles and oceans of experience apart… one a young Australian girl with no friends or any real love in her world, the other an equally lonely 44-year old morbidly obese Jewish man in New York City with Asperger syndrome and chronic depression. Over a twenty year period, a surprise friendship between two distant souls develops, which becomes both a comfort and a frustration in their increasingly difficult lives.
The Savages and Mary And Max demonstrated the type of project at which Hoffman perhaps most excelled, and even if they made relatively little money at the box-office, they found their audiences who took them to heart and will love them forever more. And all the while, Hoffman continued to appear in massively successful blockbuster movies like Mission Impossible III, Charlie Wilson’s War and most recently, The Hunger Games:Catching Fire.
For me, Hoffman was always at his best in those smaller pictures, which isn’t to say he wasn’t a gifted movie star who could vastly improve any picture he was in. He is surely unique in Hollywood for having so few critical disasters in his career, with only Along Came Polly garnering less than favourable reviews since he became a headline name in his own right.
Whilst the critics quite rightly fawned over his performances in Moneyball and The Master in recent years, they also ignored the beautiful Jack Goes Boating (which Hoffman also directed), and the heartbreaking A Late Quartet, which reunited him with his Synecdoche New York co-star Catherine Keener. It was these kind of films I looked forward to most, even as I was convinced to go and see The Hunger Games sequel purely because of his involvement. Going back further into his catalogue as I always planned to do (I currently own around half of his major film roles, with a lack of money being the only reason I haven’t just bought every last one in bulk), will be a delight I’ll savour for a while yet, because I know he’s almost uniformly been a stamp of quality on a film for many, many years.
Which leads us back to the present day, waiting impatiently to see his new films andHappyish – the proposed television series he had recently made a pilot of with Hedwig And The Angry Inch director John Cameron Mitchell. The latter will sadly, never be. Those new films will be his last. This incredible actor’s last performance is as a supporting player in tween fantasy quadrilogy The Hunger Games, which he had seven days’ work left to complete before being set to begin directing his second feature.
And he’s gone. And it saddens me, and angers me,and confuses me in equal measure. I’d seen his recent interviews at Sundance, and thought he looked tired, and somewhat bored of the asinine questioning thrown his way. This seemed somewhat unusual, but I thought nothing of it. Everyone has an off day. In retrospect, it’s probably easy to see a man on the edge, in much the same way some ridiculous critics have been claiming they could read the signs of his destruction coming up in his recent performances (here’s a clue: they couldn’t,or they’d have said so).
They say only the good die young, but right now for all his altruistic tendencies and the love poured upon his memory by the acting community, it’s hard for rational minds to understand how such a good man could make such a selfish decision with three young children to support. We’ll probably never know what inner torment led to his sudden and untimely demise, or what turned him back to the drugs he left behind so many years ago, but as someone who has battled with the black dog himself, I feel as if a man I admired so greatly as an artist and a human being has shown that all the true greats really are as messed up as the rest of us.
If I’m honest, I did consider him a true hero of mine… up there with Chris Morris and Jim Henson, with David Bowie, John Lennon and Freddie Mercury – true pioneers who do/did things their way and made a lasting impression on the world in the process. I was gutted I couldn’t get to see him on Broadway in Death of a Salesman, and even more annoyed I missed his BAFTA tribute in London a few years ago because I wasn’t a BFI member. Much like Mercury, or Michael Jackson, those angel wings I subconsciously put upon Philip Seymour Hoffman have been torn by his actions, though in doing so, my respect for him as an artist and as a human being may, in time, increase. I’ve understood how it feels to be so low despite all the good things in your life, and the anger at his passing has turned to regret. I just feel so utterly sorry for him. I wish someone had busted him, sent him off to rehab and/or jail and sorted his problems out so he could have rebuilt his life, but it was not to be. Gone too soon, indeed.
What we’re left with is what he wanted to leave us all with in the first place – his art. I expect his name to be completely trashed by the tabloids in the weeks and months to come, but when the dust settles, it will be his life’s work that stands out – even if so much of the tragedy of the characters he often portrayed will now be tinged with an extra layer of sadness at the tragedy of the wonderful, but tortured man behind them.
To Philip Seymour Hoffman, then. You will be missed, but never forgotten.