Tuesday, February 04, 2014

The only currency worth a damn in this bankrupt world - Remembering Philip Seymour Hoffman

I first remember seeing Philip Seymour Hoffman as the preppy George Willis Jr. in Scent of a Woman. It wasn't exactly the most demanding of roles. George is the antithesis to Chris O'Donnell's character, a silver spoon sleazebag who seemingly bullies young Charlie Simms into keeping his mouth shut after the two of them witness some particularly destructive hijinks committed by the cool kids on campus. At the end of the film George is shown to be nothing but a scared daddy's boy who is willing to rat out his friends to save his own skin while Charlie, with no small help from Pacino in full on whoooooohah mode, decides that honor, dignity, and loyalty are more important than either false friendships or saving his own skin.

I watched Scent of a Woman repeatedly after it came out. This was during the time I was first starting to get seriously interested in film and I was totally blown away by how wonderful the performances are (which, it must be said, hold up much better than the film as a whole). Hoffman's performance is an astounding thing, especially so early on in his career. His body language, his voice, the idiosyncratic pat on the cheek he gives to O'Donnell as he tells him what's what, all of these make George, Jr. into a particularly slimy character. Yet in the final "courtroom" scene at the end we see such immense vulnerability and discomfort shine through all of these characteristics, which Hoffman managed to set up in a matter of two brief scenes, that a character which could have been portrayed as nothing but a villainous stereotype takes on beautiful layers of humanity and pain.

Such was Hoffman's gift, which he would go on to develop and master in the next two decades, to starkly portray how profoundly sad life is while at the same time imbuing his character's suffering with such immense dignity and grace that no matter how troubled, disturbed or repellent they might seem their fundamental humanity always shone through, giving us a better sense of our own pain, and the potential for beauty in that pain.

Such vulnerability cannot be faked. There is no acting lesson, technique or craft that allows you to access that darkness. You have to live it. This is why the truly great artists, the ones that not only embody but also elevate our condition, are people who have chosen to embrace that darkness and make that pain an essential element of their craft. Billie Holiday. Charlie Parker. Jim Morrison. Jackson Pollock. Kurt Cobain. Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Of all the astounding performances that Hoffman gave us my favorite will always be his Lester Bangs in Almost Famous. Hoffman perfectly embodied everything that made Bangs so legendary a writer: the passion, the childish joy and awe for the music he loved, the desperate need to live up to the mad ideals of rock n' roll. But Hoffman also gave Bangs a vulnerability and an openness that belied Bang's bombastic personality, a sober realization that the factory of cool is nothing but a sham and that true life and true art can only become manifest when the masks come off, when we admit our vulnerability, our confusion, and our fear. "The only currency worth a damn in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone when you're being uncool."

Cameron Crowe's lines are beautiful by themselves but when spoken by Hoffman they take on an added significance. Philip Seymour Hoffman spent his entire career embodying this philosophy. In an industry obsessed with the superficial, glamorous, pretty, and fun, Hoffman reminded us that the beauty of cinema, and of art in general, lies in its ability to communicate to us the complexity of the human condition, and that this can only be accomplished when the art is honest and true. But in order for it to be honest and true the artist must be willing to sacrifice him or herself for us, the audience, on an almost daily basis. They must let go of all the defense mechanisms we utilize to get through every single day. They have to cast off all the masks, superficial chatter, sarcasm, and aloofness that constitute our armor. They have to stand before us naked so that we can be reminded that the identities we create for ourselves shield us not only from the sadness of life but also its joys. Good art gives us beauty, and beauty makes us better. Philip Seymour Hoffman gave us a lot of beauty.

It is impossible to say or write anything about Hoffman without being pained by the tragedy of his death. Having dealt firsthand with the demons of addiction I can only pray that Hoffman has found the peace that he sought in both the art that gave us so much joy and in the drugs that have brought such sadness. First and foremost, I think that our prayers and thoughts should be ones of thanksgiving. It is a curious and astounding privilege to be alive, and great artists make that privilege all the more meaningful and profound. Philip Seymour Hoffman, more than almost any other actor of his generation, gave a great deal of himself so that we might benefit through his art, and for that we give him thanks.

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