Sunday, February 2, 2014

In Praise of Philip Seymour Hoffman

Philip Seymour Hoffman
I just turned on my Kindle and there was a link to an article listing Philip Seymour Hoffman's greatest performances. I thought, that's nice, but why this special tribute? Did he die or something? Then I saw the awful news which is not a hoax. Hoffman was found dead this morning of an apparent drug overdose in a Greenwich Village apartment. He had been struggling with addiction for years. I had no idea. The drug and alcohol-related problems of pop celebrities like Lindsay Lohan, Justin Bieber, Paris Hilton, and their ilk are splashed into our consciousness constantly. But if you're the greatest actor of your generation and you don't happen to be stunningly handsome, I guess your addictions don't make the headlines.

I first saw Hoffman Off-Broadway at the Public Theater in Caryl Churchill's The Skriker, directed by the brilliant Mark Wing-Davies. He was part of the ensemble, playing multiple roles. The play was about a demon, the skriker of the title, who takes possession of two ordinary English girls. Hoffman played a guy picking up one of the girls and a supernatural monster. I remember he seemed just like a real person,  not an actor, relating to this strange girl and asking her to explain sleep. It was only after a few telling moments that you realize he's the skriker in disguise. Then it was Defying Gravity at the former American Place Theatre, now the Laura Pels. It was about a tragic spacecraft accident, not unlike the Challenger disaster. He was a maintenance man from what I recall and as he recounted the explosion of the rocket ship with astronauts on board, you could feel the terror.

Then he started getting film roles and though he was not conventionally good looking, he captured every moment on screen. Of course, everyone knows about his amazing Oscar-winning transformation from his natural stocky self to the petite literary dynamo Truman Capote. But he was just as convincing as a ruthless supervillain in one of the Mission: Impossible films (wiping Tom Cruise off the screen), an obnoxious preppy student in Scent of a Woman and The Talented Mr. Ripley, and a lovesick closeted gay gofer in love with Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights.

But probably the performance I'll remember most was his Willy Loman in Mike Nichols' revival of Death of a Salesman. Almost 20 years too young for the part, Hoffman again created a totally different physical presence. The weight of Willy's failure sat on his shoulders like lead bricks. The scene that sticks with me is not an obvious one like the final confrontation with Biff or the long monologue with his boss Howard. It's the one with Bernard, the nerdy next-door nuisance who has grown up into a successful lawyer. Estranged from both of his sons and bewildered by his family's lack of financial success, Willy practically begs Bernard to reveal the "secret" of making it to the top.

Hoffman added the subtext of asking Bernard why he and his father, Willy's neighbor Charlie, get along, and how he (Willy) can find the same connection with his son Biff. The crack in Hoffman's voice as he asks "What's the secret" contains all the years of deception, disconnection and love the benighted salesman feels for his wayward offspring. At 46, Hoffman was the greatest actor of his generation on stage and screen and I can't think of anyone even approaching his range and talent.

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