Skip to ContentSkip to Navigation
Over onsFaculteit der LetterenOrganisatieBestuur, afdelingen en medewerkersAfdelingenDepartment of American Studies
Header image American Studies Department (Blog)

“We’re Uncool”: Philip Seymour Hoffman (1967-2014) (by Dr. Amanda Gilroy)

Datum:10 februari 2014

It’s been a week since Philip Seymour Hoffman died. So much has been written about him in the past seven days that it’s hard to say more. It’s striking that we are still talking about him. So many celebrity deaths generate chatter on news and entertainment outlets and in the blogosphere for a day or so, then discussion fades as the voracious appetites of the culture industries move onto a new event (an award, a haircut, a confrontation with the law, the death of another icon). The manner of Hoffman’s death-by-drugs has been partly responsible for keeping him in the public eye. It enabled critics and commentators across the social media to spin teleological narratives in which his death became the logical concluding act to his work. Legions of critics invested in the overworked idea of the “tormented genius,” whose addiction—though PSH seems to have lived most of his life drug free—fueled his art, generating the complex, often tortured characters he excelled at playing. Others responded with a counter-narrative which sees his end as a type of failure; these are viewers “angry” at the romanticization of drug taking, for whom Hoffman’s death obscures his achievements in life. Still others went, at least briefly, down the “conspiracy theory” route (someone must have killed him). And, of course, there’s been the “tragedy” of “untimely loss.” From all sides, there’s been a macabre focus on details (exactly how many envelopes in the apartment?).

There remains much to be said about how little media attention is given to the drug-related deaths of countless, unknown and impoverished people v. the occcasional celebrity who succumbs to addiction (but that’s another issue). In what follows, I don’t want to fetishize Hoffman’s death. His death was not a synecdoche for his work. I think there are more interesting things to say about why so many of us have responded emotionally to his passing, and these things come out of his performances.

I asked all the University of Groningen American Studies faculty to send me a couple of lines about their memories of Hoffman’s films. One theme dominates their comments (and this issue recurred, with or without framing by the death-by-drugs denouement, across the critical and social media sphere). This is Hoffman’s ability to transform himself to play a range of characters, as well as his willingness to play unappealing people. “Chameleon” is a term that comes up several times. Aynur Erdogan notes how he could move across films genres, delivering convincing characters each time—from the “priest accused of pedophilia in Doubt, and Lancaster Dodd, the leader of a religious movement in The Master” to the “infamous black market dealer” in a blockbuster like Mission Impossible III, excelling at comedy (The Big Lebowski and Along Came Polly) as much as drama. Though Hoffman made his name playing creeps and freaks, he could do romantic heroes too (Jack Goes Boating). Tim Jelfs references Hoffman’s “utterly convincing” performance as “Freddie Miles in Anthony Minghella’s adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley” (a memorable part as a snooty Princetonian) and “his turn as the awkward young sound man in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights.” Boogie Nights is one of my personal favorites: Hoffman’s closeted gay Scotty J., all odd mannerisms and pot belly, lusting after Mark Wahlberg’s would-be porn star, is both pitiful and appealing, a combination that would become a Hoffman trademark. Constantijn Smith’s favorite is Doubt, “in which Hoffman artfully and with such great attention to detail provides audiences with a sympathetic, and perhaps even relatable, character accused of the most inappropriate acts.” Is there another A-list actor who can do this? We can feel sorry for his characters, love them and loathe them, sometimes in the same film.

Hoffman has a mesmerizing screen presence. Joost Krijen (who admits to not being a film buff) vividly recalls that though PSH’s Capote is “vain” and “unlikeable,” he left the cinema “fascinated” by the novelist and “in thrall” to Hoffman’s performance. Constantijn Smith calls this performance “immersive.” Wil Verhoeven acknowledges that he gets bored when actors cannot act beyond their own selves, despite being different characters in different films (George Clooney always plays George Clooney and Meryl Streep is always Meryl Streep). But I was stunned to learn that the old CIA guy I’d enjoyed watching in Charlie Wilson’s War was actually not some old unknown actor but our friend PSH. … The man did not act a character, he became that character.

Of course, Hoffman was acting, but his great skill was to make it seem unforced and unlabored. His artistry was his ability to create authenticity.

As Verhoeven suggests, Hoffman was not like other actors of his generation. Perhaps only Christian Bale comes close in his ability to transform himself physically, shedding (The Machinest) or piling on the pounds (American Hustle) as necessary. Or Daniel Day Lewis staying “in character” during the filming of Lincoln. But even then, Hoffman’s embodiment of Capote’s elfin physique seems more an act of will than of corporeal shrinkage. He inhabits characters from inside out. His extreme makeover starts internally so he can think through his body. And he does use his body, strategically and without vanity. Paunchy tummies, scruffy hair, and bad clothes predominate over the sleek looks of Capote and Dodd. In the process of aging as Cadon Cotard, he looks increasingly bloated and ravaged. His gift was to make viewers feel how this weight was existential and emotional as much as physical. Cotard’s vast unrealizable project is like a parasite destroying him from within. Perhaps Hoffman was lucky not to be tethered to physical beauty like Brad Pitt and George Clooney. He could bypass the temptation to trade on his looks (or allow others to do so). Clooney is cutely charming in bat cape, tuxedo, and astronaut’s suit, engaging in the same witty repartee whether in Ocean’s rat pack mode, pouring coffee or drifting to his death in space. So little has changed since ER. As rock journalist Lester Bangs in Almost Famous, Hoffman offers a metacomment on good-looking people: “Their art never lasts.” Liberated from this constraint, Hoffman was free to be a character actor. But he became a star.

His stardom was evident not just in his ability to transform himself from master to sycophantic sidekick, from repellent stalker to surrealistic theater director, but to transform the film he was in. He was transformative in elevating the performances of those around him. Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts are at their best with him in Charlie Wilson’s War (indeed, this is just about the only Roberts’ film I can bear to watch). He is by far the wickest villain in the MI series, obliterating those who preceded him (I struggled to remember who was in MI I&II), but he gives Tom Cruise a rare opportunity to be convincingly emotional. Though I always had the feeling that he could steal the show if he wanted too (and sometimes inadvertently does so), on screen he had a sort of control and humility that allowed others to shine too. So many of his films are double acts or ensemble pieces in which one remembers not just Hoffman but his interactions with his co-stars (with Ethan Hawke in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead and Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams in The Master).

Wil Verhoeven writes of Hoffman (or PSH as many have taken to calling him, affectionately) as “our friend.” In an age when no celebrity can sneeze without a hundred cell phone photos winging across the web and Facebook turns everyone into a “friend,” this could be a meaningless tribute. But in fact, it captures something that many people have expressed over the past week. We feel like we have lost a friend. This is not only because Hoffman continued to look and act like a normal guy—he did not “go Hollywood,” to which all the photos of him in comfortable disarray testify. More significantly, it’s because he gave us a glimpse into the vulnerability and  everydayness of acting. Joscha Spöllmink’s favorite line is from Hoffman’s Caden Cotard in Synecdoche New York, “I’m bothered.” It sums up the simplicity and complexity of his art. As Hoffman himself put it in 2008, “On every film, you’ll have nights where you wake up at 2 in the morning and think, I’m awful in this. You see how delicate it is—a little movement to the right or to the left, and you’re hopelessly hokey.” Or, as Joscha Spöllmink writes, Hoffman revealed “the tenuous line between snotty pretension and naked frailty, between a grandeur that is off limits and its dark reverse.” In so many ways, he embodies Keats’ ideal of “negative capability”—that is, the willingness to embrace uncertainty and ambiguity over fact and reason. Because he had no “palpable designs” on us, to quote Keats again, he made space for complex responses. Ultimately, he touched so many people because he allowed us to hear him talking to himself about insecurities we recognize. The painful integrity of his “uncoolness” should have gotten him onto the list of the 100 Americans that define “American Cool,” whose photos are currently on show at the Smithsonian Portrait Gallery.

Hoffman’s career spanned more than 50 films in 22 years. It’s hard to pick just one, but departmental members voted on which film to screen for our next faculty/grad student Film Club meeting. Many films were nominated: The Master, Synecdoche, Punch-Drunk Love, Charlie Wilson’s War, Capote, Doubt. Mike Foley cast his vote for Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, noting that the “PSH-Lumet tandem was as good as the Pacino-Lumet pairing in Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon” (high praise indeed). I’ll second his sense of Hoffman’s peerless conveyance of “a certain my-world-is-coming-to-an-end desperation” in that movie. So, while we await the next Hunger Games installments, we can celebrate his performance in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (here’s the trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Jhrxn7QVDc).