It was just over a year ago that Phillip Seymour Hoffman died of, shall we say, acute drug intoxication. In layman’s terms, an overdose. Hoffman belonged to a cadre of actors capable of creating humans out of mere roles. He reminded me a bit of Spencer Tracy in his ability to create achingly fragile characters, ones with great depth, pathos, and vulnerability.
In his Rolling Stone obituary, David Fear sums up Hoffman’s legacy thusly:
No modern actor was better at making you feel sympathy for fucking idiots, failures, degenerates, sad sacks and hangdogs dealt a bum hand by life, even as — no, especially when — he played them with all of their worst qualities front and center.
Perhaps, my favorite movie of Hoffman’s is Synecdoche, NY. Hoffman plays Caden Cotard, a struggling playwright with myriad ailments and a crumbling life. Cotard is exceptionally unlikable, fretting about his health, unable to complete the one great work in his life, aimlessly drifting through failed relationships, and so on. Whereas another actor might take these aspects to create an eccentric or explicit performance, Hoffman almost underplays it, accentuating Cotard’s human, frail, pathetic, and angst-ridden nature. He is us: our pain, aches, our finite lives, our impending deaths, and the quiet desperation of a capitalistic society. Unable to control his own real life, he creates a simulacrum inside a gigantic warehouse, employing actors, stagehands, lighting grips, in essence, things he can control as a script writer. And yet, even that isn’t enough as his characters — doppelgangers of himself and others — begin to take control and live their own lives.
On its surface, Synecdoche, NY, has all of the hallmarks of a Charlie Kaufman: alienation, postmodernism, subjectivity, and so on. There’s great opportunities for it to become cold and methodical, yet Hoffman gives it a heart. His performance is desperate but not despairing. If you have the opportunity, please see it. The only caveat is that it might just leave you feeling confused, overwhelmed, and questioning your reality.
All of this was preamble, of course, for a video that I came across today, via CutPrintFilm.com, that is a montage of Hoffman’s final three completed films. The video, as well as the accompanying article, highlights what made Hoffman such a human actor, his ability to create sympathy and pathos, yet never overdoing it.
This cut down of Hoffman’s last three, accompanied by a manipulative yet sympathetic piano score, create a narrative of its own, of a man ruminating on regrets, pain, and mortality. You need not to have to seen these movies, although doing so enhances it even more.