The highlight of Punch Drunk Love isn’t Barry Egan’s awkward tepidness around women that causes him to smash a hand dryer in the bathroom of a fancy restaurant. It’s the scene about seventy-five minutes in where he tells Dean Trumbell, The Mattress Man, to stop his girls harassing him. Trumbell’s an unsavoury business type that runs illegal operations behind a legitimate front and instructs his hitmen to go check out a car on sale right after they beat up Barry Egan. His response? “Shut, shut, shut, shut, shut up! Shut up!”
Obviously, Philip Seymour Hoffman is the man behind Trumbell, a part so little he only appears in three scenes yet steals the show from the rest of the cast. Such a review isn’t news if you’re an a-grade student of Hoffman’s repertoire: he steals the scene from the leading men so regularly it became something of a joke. No luck if you were playing support to his charge – he’d just chew the set with you in it. Evidence was easy to come by: from Scotty J in Boogie Nights and Jacob Elinsky in 25th Hour to Andy in Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead and Lancaster Dodd in The Master. Every role turned into a disappearing act. Scarily so. There’s not too many actors in the world that can perfectly deliver the word “fuck” with enough venomous rage to make you leap out of your seat.
He was Fonz-level cool. In New Girl, Schmidt hosts a Philip Seymour Hoffman Party and falsely brags that the man will actually attend, a pathetic final grasp at buying integrity. He avoided the tag of One of the Best Actors Of This Generation and starred in some horrible, horrible movies but even then, his role was a sheer delight, a ray of sun shining bright out of the wasteland. The old time-will-tell adage in regards to his mark on cinema and if he will be remembered so fondly as Brando and Bogart and Newman et al is definitely true but one can’t help but feel it’s an obvious yes, even 48 hours later.
Seeing him in a film that you weren’t aware of him acting in served as a most treasured surprise, as though you were a child once again and Santa had bought you exactly what you wished for. The Invention of Lying is a great example: an absolute drag to get through but when Hoffman suddenly appeared out of nowhere as the scruffy barman reflecting on a life lost without boobs it hit the sweet spot. Hard Eight: a small film by a small filmmaker (at the time) that gave him four minutes of screen time as a cocky craps player that is humbled by a simple roll of the die. “Shack-a-lack-a-doo-bee-do!” (However, he never sought to overpower the film if the role didn’t call for it. Rewatch Moneyball: his role as Art Howe is tiny and at no stage more controlling that it needed to be. He knew the film was about Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill and he never had the ego to care about it.)
Hard Eight marked the beginning of one of the most important collaborations in film history. Like Martin Scorcese and Robert De Niro before them, Paul Thomas Anderson and Hoffman rose almost together, both marking the start of a massive upswing into the filmmaking stratosphere that finally (and unfortunately, in the sense this was the end) culminated in The Master, a rare bird of a film that succeeds almost entirely without fault. Together they made four films about love, death, loss, regret and porn and everything in between that stands up against any nerd-driven cinematic battle over late night Pepsi and popcorn, whether those nerds be video store clerks or A-list film scholars and critics.
That he died with a needle stuck in his arm, five empty bags of heroin watching over him, almost makes perfect sense if it weren’t so horrifically real. His characters were always larger than life, presiding over the rest of the film with an almost demonic presence that left them with watery eyes or fidgeting hands that didn’t know whether to hug or hit something. It was all too real via Andy in Before The Devil... as he remorselessly plotted the break-in of his mother’s jewellery store, going to extreme lengths in the fallout to save himself once the world caved in. Even before the break in, when he’d visit a creepily rich young man’s house to get a heroin hit as a means of getting away from the reality of his doomed marriage unable to repeat the highs of a recent holiday – again, an escapism – he’d wander the space holding his expensive shirt to ensure it didn’t get creased, almost fearful one slight crease may reveal too much about his private life. It was moments like this that made Hoffman so approachable and likeable as an actor with critics and laymen alike – even the most assured, unbreakable men would show a slight crease via a Hoffman performance so nuanced that you’d be hard pressed to think up another actor that could play that role just as well. Recall the scene in The Master when his Dodd was being challenged by an outsider and he was so unable to control himself that in his attempts to reason with this man from a supposed position of higher power he managed to spurt out one of the greatest cinematic insults: “pig fuck!”
That he died in such a manner was a surprise to basically everyone once you read the hundreds of tributes across the web. Reports he’d been clean for 23 years brought out the conspiracy theorists as to why now he relapsed. Not that it matters. We will never know the real answer (if one exists). Maybe it was because of his wife leaving him in the months leading up to yesterday, maybe he was too far into his characters to understand his own reality (in the Heath Ledger/Joker sense), maybe he just felt like a splurge. All this has accomplished is to remind us of how little we knew about the man Philip Seymour Hoffman. He was so far gone into the worlds his characters inhabited that it was the only way to get any insight into the portly, ginger NY man behind all these faces. If there’s anything we’ve learnt about him since it’s quite simple: Hoffman was a person getting by in this brief life with enough courage to make his mark in his chosen field of acting, not as a clerk in a dead end job.
For that he will always be more courageous than his characters. Dan Mahowny was too distracted by the roll of the die; Phil Parma too nervous to climb any kind of ladder; Brandt, well, he’s too busy keeping the peace with everyone. His characters were all unique, eccentric riffraff that shocked us, made us laugh, scared us, entertained us but most importantly taught us a lot about ourselves. As Andy said in Before The Devil... “I am not the sum of my parts.” The greatest tragedy is that we will never see another Hoffman performance ever again. For that, the film industry is weaker as a result. As viewers, so are we. We just lost one of the best teachers we ever had.
Nicholas Brodie - follow Nick on Twitter here: @fodusempire