Monday, February 03, 2014

A Master of His Art: An Appreciation of Philip Seymour Hoffman (1967-2014)

Photo credit: Liz Lauren for the Goodman Theatre
"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness... ...looking for an angry fix."
-- from Howl, by Allen Ginsberg, 1955

I don't have the wherewithal to intelligently address the seduction and peril of heroin, nor the disease of drug addiction, so I won't.

As referenced by the Ginsberg quote above, brilliant talents have far too long and often been short-circuited by "madness"--of many kinds.

So while the way in which Philip Seymour Hoffman died Sunday at the age of 46--just a year older than I am--is certainly not immaterial and is stunningly sad, it won't be my focus here.

Rather, I will add to the sea of reverent tributes by sharing a few thoughts about how he lived.

Or, as I never had the presumed pleasure of knowing him, more predominantly...

How he acted.

I write this just an hour or two removed from watching The Savages--a 2007 movie in which he is brilliantly understated excepting one scene where savagely, and now poignantly, decries the sheer brutality of death--which by my count of his staggering IMDB filmography is the 22nd film I've seen featuring Philip Seymour Hoffman.

The movies of Philip Seymour Hoffman
This does not include Happiness, which I checked out of the library yesterday, A Late Quartet, which I will soon watch on Netflix, nor Magnolia, which I've never seen for no good reason.

IMDB lists a total of 63 credits and my even-more-of-a-film-buff friend Dave believes he's seen 33.

Though under the circumstances it may be rather trivial to call Hoffman the best actor of my generation--not to mention unnecessarily comparative to Johnny Depp, Robert Downey Jr., Edward Norton and other great talents--Hoffman was undoubtedly superlative...and one of my favorites.

While he was the "leading man" star of relatively few films--his Oscar winning turn in Capote chief among them--due in part to Hollywood bias when it comes to "leading man looks" (imagine how fun he'd have been as the star of a great romantic comedy), Hoffman was one of those actors who was just a joy to watch anytime he appeared on-screen.

While his Oscar-nominated supporting work in The Master-- which I just saw a month ago for the first time--and Doubt was incredible (I haven't seen Charlie Wilson's War, for which he was also nominated), and I loved him as a renegade DJ in Pirate Radio, famed rock critic Lester Bangs in Almost Famous, Oakland A's manager Art Howe in Moneyball and a scheming son in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, blissful too were the times when Hoffman turned up in a movie I had forgotten (or never knew) he was in, and proceeded to be just about the best thing in it.

Of all the praise heaped on Philip Seymour Hoffman following his passing, I found this tweet by Andy Downing to be the most profound in its simplicity:

So while it's tragic that, excepting a few projects on which he had been working, the world will be deprived of new Philip Seymour Hoffman roles, I expect to derive great pleasure over the coming months by revisiting those I treasured--including in 25th Hour, Synecdoche, New York, Almost Famous, Boogie Nights, Punch-Drunk Love, The Talented Mr. Ripley, State & Main and more--and discovering those I missed.

Among those in the latter category, along with the aforementioned and Owning Mahowney, Love Liza, Flawless and a few others, is Jack Goes Boating, which Hoffman starred in and directed after starring in the New York stage version.

While Philip Seymour Hoffman was best known for--and will more acutely live on through--his superlative work in film, his estimable theater background supports the truth that PSH was a gifted and giving artist who appeared in many movies, rather than simply a "movie star."

Since 1995, before many knew his name, Hoffman was a core member of New York's Labyrinth Theater Company, and he would also serve as its Artistic Director, including when Jack Glaudini's Jack Goes Boating was produced in 2007. (Mimi O'Donnell, Hoffman's longtime partner and the mother of their 3 children, is the Lab's current Artistic Director.)

Photo credit: Liz Lauren for Goodman Theatre
Although I never had the pleasure of seeing Hoffman act on stage--he was nominated for three Tony Awards, including for Eugene O'Neill's A Long Day's Journey Into Night, whose 2003 Broadway run derived from a Goodman Theatre production, both directed by Robert Falls--I did once see him speak from the stage of Chicago's Goodman.

In fact, Philip Seymour Hoffman is one of only two people I've ever paid simply to see speak; Stephen Sondheim being the other.

In early 2010, likely due to his association with Falls, Hoffman directed a play at the Goodman's intimate Owen Theater, called The Long Red Road and written by Brett C. Leonard, a colleague from Labyrinth.

From Twitter, a photo of Hoffman in his NYU dorm room,
circa 1987

Although Goodman heavily promoted Hoffman's involvement, the only time the general public could actually see him was during an Artist Encounter, the theater's series of conversations with those in and involved with its plays.

For $8, I got to see Hoffman, Leonard and moderator Steve Edwards speak about The Long Read Road.

(Ironically, just last Sunday, I saw Edwards moderate the only other Artist Encounter I've attended, a free one with Falls and playwright Rebecca Gilman regarding the Goodman's excellent current production, Luna Gale. In 2001, Hoffman directed the 2001 New York premiere of Gilman's The Glory of Living.)

My memory is such that I cannot remember the specifics of anything Hoffman said and, whether I was forbidden or simply polite, I didn't snap any photos.

But I clearly recall that, as usual, Hoffman appeared rather rumpled and absolutely like no one who may fall under the purview of a Hollywood publicist.

In other words, he was completely cool.

And what clearly seemed to matter to him were not the trappings of fame and fortune, but--in addition to, as oft recounted yesterday, a walk-his-kids-to-school devotion to his family--the meaning and integrity of the work.

Not incidentally, I liked the play, and I will always admire and--far more than most celebrities who pass--acutely miss Philip Seymour Hoffman.


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