There are a lot of good birthdays today. Last year, my way of doing the birthday posts was to do a whole bunch of people, but to “give” the day to a certain person. Last year today, it was Raymond Chandler. It’s kind of interesting, because a couple of night ago, I was going back over as much of my second novel as I have written. I was trying to convince myself to burn it. And reading it, I realized that much of it is straight out of Chandler. Of course, the whole point is that the novel pretends to be one of those kind of books without actually being one of those kind of books. And it also tries to be Moby-Dick. And this may, in the end, be the problem. I should probably aim lower. I am neither a Chandler nor a Melville—even a pretend one.
On this day in 1967 the fine American actor Philip Seymour Hoffman was born. Normally, I wouldn’t pick him, but he just died. I was never an especially big fan, but he was a good actor. And unlike a lot of actors, I actually saw him get better over time. But this is probably just because I saw him act from a pretty young age. A lot of actors are very serious. However, it is hard to look at Joseph Gordon-Levitt and think anything but that he doesn’t have any depth. Hoffman, even from his earliest roles seemed like he was on the edge, emotionally.
I first saw him in Scent of a Woman, where he perfectly captured the fear and silliness of the privileged class. Next I saw him in Twister, doing a role that he could easily have become type cast into. It was his portrayal of Lester Bangs in Almost Famous that really made me take notice of him. For one thing, I had been a huge fan of Bangs since I was a teenager. But Hoffman added an emotional layer that I never got from Bangs’ writing. But I think it was right. I think that’s how Bangs probably was. I think people make the same mistake reading me. On the page, I’m downright bombastic, but in person I’m shy with a dread of conflict. (Admittedly, Cameron Crowe actually knew Bangs and so that is in the script.)
The high point of Hoffman’s career was undoubtedly Capote, even though I think that Toby Jones was better in Infamous. It was, however, interesting to see Hoffman play a part that I would have thought him completely unsuitable for. But any time an American actor can hold his own against a well trained British actor, you know you are dealing with a great talent.
But what I liked most about Hoffman was his raw and honest emotionalism. I’ve never seen him better than in A Late Quartet, a film I only managed to see a week before he died. Another good one is The Savages.
When he died recently, I was very upset with the coverage and wrote, Leave Philip Seymour Hoffman Alone! Perhaps the worst thing that people do to drug users is to define them by that one activity. Even though Hoffman’s fame pushed against that narrative, that didn’t stop all kinds of people from trying to define him as a drug addict. It’s no less ridiculous than had he been hit by a train, creating a narrative where being hit by a train explained the arc of his life. It is sad that he’s dead, because he did good work. Of course, we aren’t exactly suffering from a lack of fine actors. But Hoffman was special in that he was overweight and not terribly attractive. And we do have far too few ugly and fat people in the movies.
Happy birthday Philip Seymour Hoffman!