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 Day 19

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Coming Off as Anybody

The Devil and Philip Seymour Hoffman

by LOUIS PROYECT

Most people probably had the same reaction to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death by heroin overdose that they did to Heath Ledger’s on painkillers in the same kind of posh downtown neighborhood. Why would somebody earning millions of dollars and the adulation of countless fans ever become a drug addict, and as was the case with both superstars, an alcoholic as well? The dirty little secret of the acting profession is that many people attracted to it are compensating for deep feelings of inadequacy that no amount of money or fame can relieve. When I was an undergraduate at Bard College, I became good friends with a woman who would become a film and theater star of some magnitude but most of the time she could not shake the feeling that she was not smart as the other students. When she was on stage being applauded, that was when she felt like a human being. Of course, when you are not on stage or on the silver screen, reality has a way of bringing you down.

Hoffman earned the kind of accolades that do not usually come the way of “character actors”. Most movie stars are the sorts of prime meat in their twenties and early thirties who end up on David Letterman’s sofa talking about the cute things their pet schnauzer does and promoting their next film, an exciting tale of Navy Seals rescuing San Diego from mutant flying sharks. Wikipedia says that the earliest known use of the term character actor is from the November 9, 1883 edition of The Stage, which defined it as “one who portrays individualities and eccentricities, as opposed to the legitimate actor who [...] endeavours to create the rôle as limned by the author”.

I have a somewhat different take on the term. To me, character is the essence of fiction as Henry James once said. “What is character but the determination of incident?” was the way he put it in “The Art of Fiction”, which is another way of saying that characters drive plot. When you have a life-like character with certain tragic flaws, the action on stage or on the screen flows logically from the inner psychological necessities of a Macbeth or a Willy Loman.

I have seen Hoffman in a dozen different films but none captivated me more than “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead”. While this 2007 noir directed by Sidney Lumet (his last) was nothing more than an elevated crime melodrama, every time that Hoffman appeared made me feel like I was watching a film for the ages. He plays Andy, a financial manager at a real estate firm in New York, who has been embezzling money to support his drug addiction. Of course, you might say that his personal life gave him a leg up in getting inside his character but it is much more likely that he did the same thing he always did, which was to both understand and to become the character.

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Sydney Lumet directing Hoffman in “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.”

Andy has become convinced that the solution to his problems and that of his younger and feckless brother Hank (Ethan Hawke), who owes child support to his ex-wife, is to hire somebody to rob their parents’ jewelry store. Using his physical bulk and his dominant personality, Andy drags Hank into a scheme that cannot fail. And, of course, just like every heist in films going back to “Rififi”, this one fails and on a grand scale.

There’s a collection of clips from “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.” In clip 2/11, you see Andy begin to sell the idea to his brother. With his malevolent smile and his projection of male dominance, he is clearly demonstrating what the Greeks called hubris or pride. The clash between brothers and father over a robbery gone wrong is reminiscent of ancient tragedy but writ small. Living no longer in an age of kings and queens, we are fated to see an Andy in the big screen or a Willy Loman on stage, a role that seemed made for Hoffman when he assumed it in a Broadway production in 2012 even though he was only 44 at the time.

Arthur Miller had special meaning for Philip Seymour Hoffman. In a profile on the actor that appeared in the December 21, 2008 Sunday New York Times Magazine, he recounted his first encounter with theater. In 1979, when he was 12 years old, he saw “All My Sons” near his home in Rochester that was in the words of reporter Lynn Hirschberg, “one of those rare, life-altering events where, at an impressionable age, you catch a glimpse of another reality, a world that you never imagined possible.” In his own words: “I literally thought, I can’t believe this exists.”

One has no idea from the Times profile or from any of the many articles that have appeared since his death whether Hoffman was touched by the ideas of the play, or simply by the performances. While not so nearly well known as “Death of a Salesman”, this 1947 play was Miller’s most political and led to his being called before HUAC in the 1950s. It is based on a true incident. During WWII a military contractor was building planes with defective engines in order to cut costs. It was the intervention of assembly-line workers that finally led to the company and complicit military officers being punished.

My bet is that the ideas did resonate with him since that would be the only explanation of him serving as interviewer for a low-budget documentary made during the 2000 election campaign titled “The Party’s Over” that I learned about from Richard Seymour, the British author and activist. (The film can be seen on Amazon streaming.) At that time, Hoffman had already made twenty feature films and might have lost millions during the time he spent making this politically engaged film.

Directed by Rebecca Chaiklin and Donovan Leitch Jr. (not the pop singer mocked by Bob Dylan), this is your standard issue leftie film that has Hoffman talking to activists, intellectuals and politicians about the state of the world. Although he describes himself as uninvolved with politics, Hoffman confesses that he is upset with the status quo.

His first of three visits to Noam Chomsky’s office at MIT has him listening to Chomsky explaining what’s wrong with American society. It is calculated to turn the population into a “bewildered herd” incapable of making moral distinctions or acting collectively to make things better.

Hoffman does not challenge Chomsky’s analysis—how could any sentient human being?—but does find himself registering some dismay at Representative Harold Ford Jr.’s description of American politics as basically a business that turns campaign donations into political policy. Perhaps expecting the actor to take this all in with aplomb, he is taken aback when Hoffman describes it as a cynical game that will make the ordinary person feel disenfranchised.

The most memorable scene involves a one-on-one between Hoffman and Michael Moore, who despite chairing a huge Nader rally at Madison Square Garden that year, was obviously still connected to the Democrats on the evidence of the reply he gave to Hoffman’s query as to whether there was any real differences between the two parties. Of course there was, Moore replied. The people who went to the Democratic Party convention were from the poor and the working class. For these people, the Democratic Party was like a lifeboat out in the middle of the ocean that had sprung leaks. Furthermore, the only thing they had to save themselves was a Dixie cup that they could use to bail out the onrushing water. Now, you wouldn’t want to deprive them of that Dixie cup, would you? Hoffman shrugged his shoulders and said that maybe it was just as well to drown.

Despite saying this, it was clear that he saw an alternative in the mass movements of that day, from the Seattle anti-WTO protests to the activists of the Ruckus Society.

One of the more poignant moments involved Hoffman in the audience as Republican Governor Gary Johnson of New Mexico spoke about the folly of the drug laws. Johnson, a libertarian, characterized them as insane and personalized the discussion by referring to his children, who by the law of statistics faced a 50 percent likelihood of becoming drug users. He said that he would never hold that against them and hoped that they would call upon them for support if they were ever in trouble including the possibility of an overdose.

Philip Seymour Hoffman will surely be missed. Like so many of the film actors who came out of the off-Broadway world (Malkovich, Dafoe, Buscemi, et al), he was someone devoted to his craft. Perhaps the most fitting epitaph were the words he used to explain his professionalism to the Times reporter, a way of coping with the innermost dread that finally no amount of adulation could overcome:

Hoffman’s approach may be less vampiric than Streep’s, but he is no less adept at getting beyond the merely physical embodiment of a role. He may put on his character’s shoes, but he also takes them off: in his work, Hoffman is willing to be ugly, pimpled, sexually scarred, miserably unhappy, fleshy and naked. He is never hesitant to reveal the soft underbelly — the insecurities, the (perhaps humiliating) desires, the longing. “I’m much more vain in my life than I am when I’m working,” he said as the food arrived. “I wish I looked different as Phil walking around or Phil waking up. I’m going to be 41, and I’ll go to the bathroom and get a good glimpse of myself in the mirror, and I’m like, What happened? All youth has left me for good. That fear that makes people crazy will strike me at those moments. But when I’m working, I’m grateful for the way I look. I’m grateful for the fact that I have a body with which I can do what I need to do and I can come off as . . . anybody.”

Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.