The New Hoffman (PS We Love You)
It's a quirk of the movie business - and of the industry's insistence that films of any substance can only be released in the winter Oscar period - that actors increasingly seem to come up with not one but a couple of significant performances within the space of weeks.
This year, Cate Blanchett has a shot at Academy Award nominations for Best Actress as Elizabeth: The Golden Age and Supporting Actress for her Bob Dylan in I'm Not There. Tommy Lee Jones also has a double deal, with his grave work in both No Country For Old Men and In The Valley Of Elah (both opening this month). British audiences aren't getting a look at it, but Casey Affleck consolidates his leading man credentials in his brother Ben's Gone, Baby Gone, hard on the heels of his superb performance in The Assassination of Jesse James…
But there's little doubt that this year's most impressive form comes from Philip Seymour Hoffman, who delivers a triple whammy this month, any one of which could (and should) generate Oscar attention.
This week, we get a double dose. In Mike Nichols' muddled but highly entertaining slice of American Imperial comedy Charlie Wilson's War Hoffman's unconventional CIA operative Gust ("You can call me Gus if you want") is really a supporting player, yet Hoffman storms through the picture, a tornado of bristling energy and bone dry cynicism that leaves his illustrious costars Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts scrambling to keep up.
On the other hand in veteran director Sidney Lumet's wages-of-sin thriller Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, PSH is firmly at the centre of things as a businessman in trouble: he's been siphoning money off to fuel his drug habit, and his plan to settle the accounts involves ripping off mom and pop's jewelry store. It's cleverly plotted and sharply filmed, but it's Hoffman's portrait of an intelligent but grasping and resentful narcissist that gives the movie its punch.
Then there's The Savages (opening January 25), a brittle, funny relationships "dramedy" where Hoffman again plays sibling, this time Jon to Laura Linney's Wendy (writer-director Tamara Jenkins has a Peter Pan thing going in the name department: their ailing pop is Lenny, played by Philip Bosco).
Jon is an academic, an intellectual who lives in his mind and struggles to cope with physical reality. He's paunchy and out of condition (he plays several scenes in a massive neck brace); every surface in his house is littered with books. Yet, reunited with Wendy, the selfish and patronizing big brother resurfaces within seconds. Somehow, we end up feeling for sorry for him anyway.
In none of these widely disparate roles does Hoffman curry favour. In their different ways all these men are assholes. At best they're pathetic, yet Hoffman makes their failings and foibles as compelling as their wit and their brains.
He's always been willing to let it all hang out like this. In a succession of supporting roles in films like Happiness (phone sex pest), Boogie Nights (closeted gay crew guy), and The Big Lebowski (officious secretary) he seemed prepared to corner the market in unattractive slobs and snobs, depressives and misfits. There seemed to be no ego to him. Some of us worried that his honesty would count against him - that he'd be trapped in character parts forever. His first few forays into leading roles were not entirely convincing - State and Main; Love Liza; Owning Mahowny - but give him five minutes in The Talented Mr Ripley or Punch Drunk Love he'd make such an indelible impression the movies tilted around his axis.
Then: Capote, the Academy Award, and popular recognition. It was a great part, written for Hoffman by two of his old acting class buddies, and a role that made him seem almost too good looking (the real Capote was so much more of an oddball than PSH could ever be).
If his talent was beyond doubt, there still remained the question of what use Hollywood might have for him? The initial answer wasn't encouraging. There is an outpost reserved for cerebral actors: villains in action movies (in Hoffman's case Mission: Impossible III).
Thankfully, he has not "gone Hollywood". He remains a quintessential New York actor - he was born upstate, in Rochester; studied drama at Tisch; and has been nominated for two TONY awards for his stage performances. (He's also directed a couple of plays off-Broadway.) It's hard to imagine him working out - even sun bathing seems improbable.
All three of this year's bumper Hoffman movie crop come courtesy of fellow New York talents: directors Mike Nichols, Sidney Lumet and Tamara Jenkins are East Coast intelligentsia through and through, and so is Charlie Kaufman, who has given Hoffman his next lead, playing a theatre director in Synecdoche, New York (and so is John Patrick Shanley, who is currently directing him in Doubt).
The New York film biz is prone to more fluctuations than its more superficial and successful LA twin, and less lucrative, but you have to reckon that the most talented American actor of his generation will continue to thrive so long as he chooses to stay on home ground and play to his strengths for revealing human weakness.
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