I really don’t have the slightest clue where to start. The beginning? That’d be an episode of Law and Order. My beginning? That’d be Mission: Impossible III. How about now, because that’s the only reference point I can tap with absolute certainty. As is the way with twitter, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death settled on me like a slow strangle. Brief screams of “NOOOOOOOO!!!!!” and “Please, not Phil Hoffman” left me disconcerted but muted. It took me a few minutes to realize it was Philip Seymour Hoffman, and then what was happening. I didn’t want to believe it, obviously, but I wasn’t going to go through the routine process of denial, screaming it’s a hoax as everyone does when these things happen. When I heard he was dead, I didn’t question it. I knew it, and I didn’t remotely know how to process it.
Writing this now, I still don’t know. I could go through a historical film-by-film retrospective of his work, from the early years to his growing reputation as an Oscar threat. I even tried that and found painfully formulated, particularly given how distinctly unruly a screen presence Phil was. While not the first time I saw him, possibly the earliest thing to tip me off to how magnetic an actor he’d become was his brief performance in Hard Eight. I may argue Paul Thomas Anderson was the first person to truly give Phil the undivided attention onscreen he deserved. Here he’s playing an obnoxious, immature asshole, here one scene, gone the next, but a total gas you can’t help but love in his hilarious, boisterous moment.
Phil could do a lot with a very small role, as proven in both studio films like Red Dragon and Along Came Polly and lovingly independent work like Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, both of which also came guided by Paul Thomas Anderson. In his first four films, Hoffman was something of a good luck charm for P.T.A., never being given central focus, but always a scene stealer. So by the time he shows up in The Master, a moment already seeping with magical buildup, there’s really no denying he’s anything but a master in complete control of his abilities. I mean Hoffman, not Lancaster Dodd. Dodd is a slave to his own circumstances, but Phil plays it with such an upsetting confidence to lend the character a twinge of tragedy. There’s no more heart-wrenching example than his rendition of “Slow Boat to China”, something I immediately watched following his death and was consumed by incredible tears.
It’s criminal to bring up Oscars at a time like this, but I think most Academy members are probably scratching their heads in retrospect at why they didn’t honor Phil’s The Master performance last year. Fortunately they already honored him back in 2005 for Capote, though I must sadly admit that I’d not seen the film until just yesterday. Maybe it was my will to maintain a biased opinion that Heath Ledger should’ve won that year for Brokeback Mountain, but now I really can’t pick any bones about it. Phil absolutely deserves all the praise he got, particularly given how poignantly he goes against type with the performance. This is not loudly boisterous, but there’s still the air of hubris that Hoffman plays so well, now dialed into a different, more timid mode.
Something that I’m very quickly finding with a kind of joyful sadness is how, as each of his performances comes to an end, it feels as if the man himself is passing in that moment. Phil Parma’s tearful goodbye to another departed patient in Magnolia. Truman Capote’s aching look at Perry Smith’s portrait of him. Any number of his onscreen deaths in Before the Devil Knows You Dead or Mary and Max. The most wrenching, however, must hands-down be the already profoundly morbid Synecdoche, New York, a clip of which I can’t find. A close constellation is the scene of him at the deathbed of his daughter, hopelessly lost as to how her life bled dry so fast before his eyes. This scene twists my heart to no end.
And here I’ve almost inevitably gone the route of recounting Phil’s most notable performances, and I find that, for all the great work he gave us, there simply were never enough. He still had so much to give us, and he knew that. He was planning his next directorial effort, Ezekial Moss starring Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal, a film that will likely never be now. His last major performance in A Most Wanted Man still hasn’t got a distributor, but it rests as something eagerly anticipated by all. I really don’t want him to be gone, and even though I know he is, it’s still eating me up because I can’t accept it. I won’t say it’s a stupid way he went out, because addiction is never something easy to get over. It’s a struggle not everyone makes it through, so the condescension about a celebrity overdosing “setting a bad example” is grossly offensive. Phil embodied so many deep emotions we feel in one way or another, but too often can’t describe.
Oh Phil… I wish the best for you, now and always.