Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Philip Seymour Hoffman, synecdoche

“There are millions of people in the world, and none of those people is an extra. They're all leads of their own stories..."

“Death comes faster than you think.”

                             -- from “Synecdoche, New York,” by Charlie Kaufman

THEY’LL DIM the lights on Broadway tonight at 7:45 p.m. eastern time. Philip Seymour Hoffman, three-time Tony nominee, Golden Globe recipient and Oscar-winning actor, will be remembered by the theatrical community he never abandoned even after the siren of Hollywood beckoned years earlier.

On stage and screen, Hoffman, who died Sunday in lower Manhattan at the heartbreakingly young age of 46, announced himself as a man unafraid to reckon with the world view of the outsider, the misfit by design or by circumstance, the weathervane of personal weather conditions that indicate the joy and pain of being a human being.

He took on the role of the brittle alcoholic James Tyrone in O’Neill’s “Long Day's Journey Into Night.” He inhabited either of the lead roles in “True West,” Sam Shepard's study of two combustible brothers. And a few seasons back, back on Broadway, Hoffman took on the challenge of portraying that enduring theatrical outsider, Willy Loman, in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.”

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That was part of a life in the theater. In the movies, Hoffman took on roles that were no less risky, adventurous — and mysterious, by way of the characters and what he brought to them. In “Twister,” he played Dusty, a goofball tornado chaser with a love of rock and roll. In “Moneyball,” Hoffman portrayed Art Howe, the Oakland Athletics manager who grapples uncomfortably with changes in baseball, the game he loves.

His portrayal of the late rock critic Lester Bangs in “Almost Famous” was and remains deeply meaningful. Bangs’ phone conversation with Cameron Crowe (played by Patrick Fugit) on the tyranny and emptiness of coolness resonates today for anyone who’s ever felt like they were on the outside looking in. “The only currency in this world is what you share with someone when you’re uncool,” Hoffman said, as Lester Bangs — and as himself.

And in “Capote,” the film for which he won the Oscar in 2006, Hoffman pulled off the kind of existential transformation that audiences live for (and other actors would kill for). In an interview, the veteran director Mike Nichols talked with Chris Nashawaty of Entertainment Weekly, and tried to capture the mystery of Hoffman’s essence in that film: “What he does is completely mysterious, you never understand it or find it out. ... he became Truman Capote even though he’s five times the size of the little twerp. He became Truman Capote. He’s like Meryl Streep — nobody knows how the f— they do what they do.”

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LIKE GUIDO Anselmi in Fellin’s “8½,” Caden Cotard, Hoffman’s theater director character in Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York,” finds his dream of a theatrical magnum opus becomes unwieldy, the city he constructs for its performance growing larger and larger, the challenges of realizing his masterpiece consuming him to a point where fiction and reality fuse.

Hoffman was long considered an actor’s actor, years before the film’s release in 2008; that dimension of the Cotard character as accidental victim of his own ambition was probably something Hoffman could certainly relate to. But Cotard’s acute sense of mortality and human frailty certainly, fatally dovetailed with Hoffman’s own.

TMZ reported that sources told the publication in December that “he had started injecting himself with heroin and couldn’t kick it. Hoffman said he would kick it for a few days and then fall off the wagon.

“We’re told he went back to AA in a desperate attempt to clean up ... but much to his great frustration it didn’t work. ... At one point someone asked him how bad his problem was, and he responded, ‘If I don't stop I know I'm gonna die.’ ”

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Now, of course, we’re faced with the final information all too easily available in an information age, the stuff of forensics and law enforcement sources: how authorities found Hoffman in his apartment in the West Village; how he’s said to have made multiple cash withdrawals totaling $1,200 from a downtown ATM a day before he died; how an NYPD search of a Mott Street apartment has led to multiple narcotic-related arrests in the case of his death.

Which, it goes without saying, isn’t the Philip Seymour Hoffman we want to remember.

Cameron Crowe, who directed Hoffman in “Almost Famous,” bore proper witness to that singular talent in his blog, The Uncool, when he recounted how the actor transformed a pivotal scene in Crowe’s autobiographical 2000 film, with Hoffman (as Lester Bangs) talking by phone to Fugit (playing Crowe) — a scene that cut through to the humanity underneath:

“My original take on this scene was a loud, late-night pronouncement from Lester Bangs. A call to arms. In Phil’s hands it became something different. A scene about quiet truths shared between two guys, both at the crossroads, both hurting, and both up too late. It became the soul of the movie. In between takes, Hoffman spoke to no one. He listened only to his headset, only to the words of Lester himself. (His Walkman was filled with rare Lester interviews.) When the scene was over, I realized that Hoffman had pulled off a magic trick. He’d leapt over the words and the script, and gone hunting for the soul and compassion of the private Lester, the one only a few of us had ever met. Suddenly the portrait was complete. The crew and I will always be grateful for that front row seat to his genius.”

Ian McKellen posted this on Facebook on Sunday: “He was without doubt one of the most accomplished screen actors of our time, with so many more performances waiting to enchant us with.

“What I will remember most is his Konstantin in Chekov's "The Seagull" in a starry revival in New York's Central Park (2001). Meryl Streep was his mother, although he looked old enough to be her younger brother, a self-obsessed lonely boy, longing for success, trying to make his own way in an alien world.

“The open-air venue was not conducive to the delicacy and intimacy of the play, yet Hoffman amazingly shrank the space between him and the audience and made us feel we were spying on his insides.

“His work on film survives his death, the only consolation in our grief and regret.”

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SINCE ALL this took place, since Hoffman died, they’ve come out of the woodwork: the relentless moralists and finger-waggers eager to call him a junky and a drug casualty and to cast blame, the judgmental cretins all too happy to regale us with the Moral of the Story, concentrating on the floor of the forest without so much as a glance at the sequoias.

This is, with many of the performances he electrified, his legacy: Philip Seymour Hoffman was panoramic in his emotional range, but finally, ultimately, he spoke to us individually and personally. He lived both the pain of his life, and the pain of this life, a covert agent investigating the darker places, the shadows we, all of us, like to think we’re immune to.

He was that singular that captures and embodies the plural, the one that symbolizes the all. His struggle with chemical demons mirrors our collective struggles with the various demons to be found in the intrinsic toxicity of the modern world. By this fact, there is no cheap postmortem judgment of the man that holds water. He was our synecdoche. His battles with life’s velocity, his demons are, to one degree or another, our very own.

Image credits: Hoffman top: Credit tk. Hoffman in “Death of a Salesman: Brigitte Lacombe. Still from “Capote”: © 2005 United Artists/Sony Pictures Classics. Almost Famous” poster: © 2000 DreamWorks Pictures/Columbia Pictures. Hoffman double exposure: Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin for The New York Times.

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