A favorite pastime of critics and serious filmgoers, perhaps the most idiotic and fruitless one, is to complain about how bad the movies have gotten. The complaint is meaningless, because no matter how “bad” the movies get, there are always, always actors. There’s no such thing as a golden age of movie acting: Actors today are capable of stoking the same wonder, and reaching the same depths of feeling, as those who worked 20, 50, or 80 years ago. On a day like today, the day we’ve lost Philip Seymour Hoffman, that sense of continuity feels like a lifeline.
To watch Hoffman — in the movies and, if you were fortunate enough, onstage — was pure pleasure. He was an extremely serious performer, an eternal student of that pretentious-sounding thing we call the actor’s craft. Yet technique melted under his touch – he made acting look like nothing at all, but also like something magnificent. He was magical and solid at once, a bracingly physical actor — impish, whiskery, slightly rotund — who looked as if he might have stepped from the pages of Chaucer, though he also radiated lightness.
To watch him as the laid-back, advice-dispensing Lester Bangs in Almost Famous, or the joyously, theatrically disgruntled Gust Avrokotos in Charlie Wilson’s War, or the lovesick Scotty J. in Boogie Nights, is to see some of the most powerful yet delicate human feelings — of disappointment, of longing, of grudging acceptance that our flaws can actually be kind of groovy – made corporeal. Watching him as the capable, deeply empathetic caretaker Phil Parma in Magnolia, you can almost feel the sensitivity in the pads of his fingers.
I was lucky enough to see Hoffman onstage twice, opposite John C. Reilly in True West, and as James Tyrone, Jr. in Long Day’s Journey into Night; his heart was in the theater, and if anything, his presence on stage was even more magnetic than in the movies. But the movies, of course, will always be the best, most lasting record of his work. It’s impossible to touch on all the performances, in big movies and small ones, in which Hoffman glowed. He was great far more often than he was merely good. And he was never bad.
A few years back, writing for Salon, I made a case for him as one of the sexiest actors alive, and I’ll always think of him that way. Yes, I had the hots for him. It’s the moviegoer’s job to fall in love with actors, and if critics are first and foremost moviegoers, they must be able to fall in love with actors too. It’s terrible that he’s gone, but how wonderful that he was ever here! In Almost Famous, his Lester Bangs gives worldly advice over the phone to the terminally uncool aspiring rock scribe played by Patrick Fugit.
“We are uncool,” he tells the kid. “Women will always be a problem for guys like us. Most of the great art in the world is about that very problem….That’s what great art is about. Guilt and longing, and love disguised as sex and sex disguised as love.” Hoffman took a problem, or a potential problem – the problem of uncoolness — and turned it into art. He made it all look so easy, but everything he gave us was built to last. He was cool, in the warmest possible way.
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