ONE YEAR AGO I PUBLISHED THIS ARTICLE ON PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN DAYS AFTER HIS UNTIMELY DEATH ON FEBRUARY 2, 2014. I REPUBLISH IT NOW AS A TRIBUTE TO HIS ARTISTRY AND AS A SOMBER REMINDER OF HIS STRUGGLE.
There have been countless articles and commentaries about Philip Seymour Hoffman since his death this past Sunday. I doubt I can add much to the cavalcade of remembrances, but here are a few thoughts.
As a teacher, I occasionally will show film clips of actors that put a visual to a technique I am teaching. It is not something I do too often, but as I said, I occasionally do it. In talking with some clients after Hoffman's death, I realized that every time I showed a clip to students, it was of Philip Seymour Hoffman. That is how good he was, that I used his work to teach points to people and I never even realized it because I never even thought about it. Hoffman was so good that we never even had to think about it. His talent was off the charts, but the reason I used him as a teaching tool was because his skill, craft and technique were impeccable.
An example of his craftsmanship is his masterful use of his hands. Here is a clip from The Master that I use to show students about the effective use of an actor's hands in telling a story, specificity and detail in movement, defining character, and working with the camera.
The clip above is also a great lesson in the use of physicality and focus. Hoffman doesn't give his opponent his focus, or square himself off to him completely until he fully commits to verbal combat, and the results are explosive, which he quickly realizes and tries to regain his composure for his audience members. Also, notice how when the shot goes wide, Hoffman uses his hands down at his waist level as opposed to at his shoulder level in the close up. He uses his hands to fill the shot he is occupying. He also doesn't randomly gesticulate, each movement is specific and detailed and punctuates his dialogue and voice.
The next scene is from Boogie Nights, and it is Hoffman's character Scotty J's introduction to the audience. It is an absolute masterpiece of an entrance. Hoffman uses the setting, his costume, his physicality and his breath to tell the audience immediately who this guy is and we instantly know him.
A few things to notice in this entrance. Hoffman doesn't just walk in and hit his mark. He enters at his own pace, still effected by the sick girl being carried out behind him. He hesitates, and awkwardly walks to his mark. Then at his mark, he surveys the pool party before him and takes a big breath before entering. This breath is fantastic in humanizing Scotty for the audience. We feel for him, he is a shlubby mess, but we feel for him after that breath. We understand that he is insecure, self conscious and fragile. That breath makes us allies of Scotty J. It is awesome.
Then also notice when Scotty J meets Dirk Diggler that he uses his hands. He plays with his sunglasses, he tugs on his shirt in order to cover his belly, he indicates with his hands whom he is talking to or about. Even in the coverage of Dirk and Reed Rothchild where we only see Scotty's back, Hoffman still uses his hands, which gives even more of a visual life into what could have been a flat and basic scene in the hands of a lesser actor and director.
Finally, take a look at Hoffman's monologue from the film Happiness. See his use of breath to give inner life and fullness to his stillness. Then watch as the camera pulls back and his hands are revealed, he then rubs them against the chair. He becomes tactile when it serves the shot in order to show more of his character. When the shot was tight and he couldn't do that, he used his breath to reveal his character's inner life and wants, but when the camera is pulled back he can use his hands to reveal more and he does. (My apologies….sadly, the Happiness clip has been pulled from the internet, but I strongly encourage you to go watch Happiness directed by Todd Solendz, and in particular watch the scene where Philip Seymour Hoffman's character is at his therapists. You will know it when you see it. That is the scene I am describing here. As a replacement scene, check out Hoffman's work from Charlie Wilson's War. Notice his physicality, his posture and stance, his voice and breath, and finally how he uses his hands. Notice also how he adapts his physicality in order for his performance to be appropriate to the camera frame. This is master craftsmanship combined with sheer talent and passionate commitment. )
These are just three very brief examples of the craft and detail that Philip Seymour Hoffman brought to all of his work. I highly recommend viewing his entire body of work in order to see many more examples of mastery. The highlights of his work for me, can be seen in Boogie Nights, Magnolia, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Happiness, Punch Drunk Love, Doubt, Capote, Synecdoche, NY and The Master. Watch his hands, watch his physicality, watch his focus and watch his breath. He uses everything in the actor's tool bag to bring life and humanity to all of his characters. I think that is the thing that strikes me most about Philip Seymour Hoffman. As a character actor, he wasn't given a whole lot of screen time to create memorable characters and bring them to life, but he used his talent and skill to bring the smallest of characters into clear focus, and his films were so much better for it.
I think that is why he is so beloved in the acting community. He was an average looking guy, with a doughy body and that usually means you don't get too far in this business, but he overcame all that through hard work, skill, commitment to craft and talent. He went from a character actor to a leading man for no other reason than he was great at acting. He didn't give a shit about celebrity or the Hollywood game or any of that nonsense. He loved acting and film and theatre, and that's why we loved him. Most people who get into acting don't do it to be a celebrity, they do it to be an artist, and Hoffman epitomized the actor as artist. In a business where casting decisions are made based on the size of one's Twitter following as opposed to one's skill, or where a "leaked porn video" is worth more cache than time spent working in the theatre, Philip Seymour Hoffman was a beacon of artistry that showed the way for artists to make the most of the opportunities Hollywood can present without buying into the nonsense of all that comes with it.
I was lucky enough to see Hoffman on Broadway a few times. Twice in "True West" with John C. Reilly and once in "Long Days Journey into Night". He was a magnetic stage actor, who filled theaters with his physical presence and drew the audience in with his delicate humanity. I regret not being able to see his Willy Loman in "Death of a Salesman", just like I will regret not being able to see him in any other plays or films. His death is a profound loss for actors and film and theatre lovers everywhere.
One final comment, in the past few days many people have written about Philip Seymour Hoffman and either their interactions with him, or how his death has effected them in some personal way. This is a natural tendency when someone famous dies. We all personalize these things because we feel as if we know the person because we've spent so much time watching them work that we feel we know them. We don't, of course, but that isn't going to stop me from doing the same thing.
To me, Philip Seymour Hoffman had the perfect life. He was a highly respected, award winning actor who worked in great art house type films (P.T. Anderson type-films) and also made some great money in more blockbuster type films. He did fantastic plays on Broadway and also directed other smaller plays. He had a fine family, three young kids, and enough financial security that he should never have had a care in the world. Perfect. Except it wasn't. This is something I have in common with Philip Seymour Hoffman. He had been sober 23 years leading up to his heroin overdose. I have been sober 22 years. We are both of the same generation, both from New York and we both have the same disease. He died of his disease, and I am still living with mine.
I was absolutely speechless when I heard he had died. After more than twenty years of sobriety you sort of assume that you have slain the dragon and you don't have to think about it ever again. The truth is, you haven't slain the dragon, you have just driven it from the kingdom, and if you don't build up large castle walls, the dragon can come back and obliterate you. It has happened to me, where the thought occurs to you that maybe, just maybe, you could have a beer, like a normal person, and your life could go on uninterrupted. You can convince yourself of nearly everything, and convincing yourself that you are normal is the insidious voice of the disease whispering in your ear.
There are some things you can do to counter the dragon whispering in your ear about your normalcy. You can not listen, but that only works for so long. That is not a defense, it is a white knuckling attempt to ignore reality. The better option is to build big castle walls in the form of surrounding yourself with people who don't use. This almost always means eliminating your friends from you life. It can also mean eliminating a spouse or family member from your life. This is hard to do, but it is what is needed. You can fool yourself into thinking you can get by without it, but you won't. You will fail, and you will die. I know, I know…"I'm loyal", "I'd never turn my back on my friends/wife/family etc etc". Yeah, I get it. You're the exception to the rule. The rules don't apply to you. Your recovery will be different.
Bullshit. No it won't. You will fail, and you will die. This is reality. Reality is that you should not go to bars, or parties or family gatherings if there will be drinking there. You can't go. If people don't get it…fuck them. You must be as relentless against the disease as the disease will be against you. The disease doesn't care how, why or with whom you use…it only cares that you use. You must be as vigilant as the dragon, and this son of a bitch dragon, he don't sleep.
If you don't have the disease but someone you love does, these rules apply to you as well. You must be as ruthless as the disease. You can cut no slack, you can offer no sympathy, you can only offer a way out, and that is contingent upon the user stopping their use. You cannot argue, or debate or bargain. The deal is, you stop using, and I'll be your best friend and ally. If you use, I will not tolerate your presence. You have to hold yourself to that. It also wouldn't hurt to be an example and not use yourself, even if it isn't "your problem". The truth is, you need to change your life almost as much as the addict does, so be an example of courage through the changes you make.
I've heard and read a lot of people saying Hoffman was "selfish" or an "asshole" for loving the needle more than he loved his kids. I find this line of thought really repulsive and misguided. Hoffman had a disease that killed him. It is a truly cunning disease that doesn't change how much you love people, but it does change how you love people. So hearing people diminish Hoffman's struggles by saying he simply chose this way of life is infuriating to me. That is not to say that those things have no place being said to an addict, they do. If saying those sorts of things makes someone stop using, then go crazy with it. One of my favorite things to say to a male addict is to tell him to "be a man", meaning, clean up and take care of your family and kids and life…"be a man!" (by the way, this is only an option to use if the person saying it has been through recovery and is sober themselves…please keep that in mind). Here is a brief clip of the approach:
It might work, it might not, but when the disease has a hold of someone, you do whatever it takes to wrest control away from it, and if that means getting rough, then you get rough. The way I see it is this, when someone in your life is in the throes of addiction it can be a nuisance, an annoyance, a nightmare and a pain in the ass, and you can say all sorts of insensitive and outlandish things like "you're selfish" or "you love the needle more than you love your kids". But when someone dies from addiction, you should say none of those things, all you can say is, it is a tragedy, and seeing it any other way simply reveals you to be an emotionally immature, empathetically obtuse, narcissistic nit-wit and jackass.
In conclusion, the world lost a truly remarkable artist this past week to a disease that is as unscrupulous as any. I hope we take both Philip Seymour Hoffman's fantastic work and tragic death and use them as lessons for our art and life moving forward. I know I will use it as a joyous reminder of the artistry of acting, and a terrible and tragic reminder that the dragon never sleeps.