Since the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, many have been renting his movies. That’s how I rediscovered a moment in Owning Mahowny, made in Canada, released in 2003, and directed by Richard Kwietniowski. Hoffman plays a trusted bank employee who skims funds from the bank to fuel his addiction to gambling. Heavily in debt, he is uncovered and arrested. The real man on whom the story is based went to prison for six years and reformed. Hoffman never found so clear an escape. The fraud is hard to follow—maybe you need a few years working in a bank. Not that the density is troubling. From early on, we realize the key to this story is whether Mahowny hopes to get away with it all, or is secretly determined to be exposed.
He has a girlfriend, played by Minnie Driver, another bank employee, not too bright and not as appealing as Driver can be. They travel together, and there is a scene in a hotel room where Mahowny is taking a shower when she wants to talk to him. The camera is fixed on the shower curtain. It draws back and there is Hoffman, pink-skinned, blond-haired, dripping, prepared to talk to her but as always driven to avoid her scrutiny. This man is fleshy, overweight; he looks unhealthy or downcast, not clean or refreshed. The shower has not touched his blankness—what chance does she have? That is the character, of course; but it is Hoffman the actor, too. And there is something disconcerting in Mahowny’s stare: it is close to a passive-aggressive withdrawal from the world. It is the actor saying, “Well, I am going to look like this. The fuck with looking like an actor, or a lead actor.” It is clear that the man had to act, but it is just as plain that something in that compulsion horrified him.
There is no reason to rake over the sketchy things we know about the real Hoffman. Not even an immense biography and a confessional autobiography would say enough to make that history clear. The only thing I know is his work. That is why I was drawn to the moment in Owning Mahowny, as it carried nakedness beyond that unclothed body in some Canadian room for the purposes of a movie.
What is it that we expect from an actor? Hoffman was always busy. He was forty-six when he died, and by then he had accumulated sixty-three credits as a screen actor. That is more than average. By the age of eighty, Marlon Brando had forty-six credits. You might retort that, well, Brando was famously disenchanted with acting as a career or an art, and with himself as its practitioner. But he was more often amused than we might say of Hoffman. At the start of The Godfather, on the day of his daughter’s marriage, Vito Corleone has reason to be content, and Brando lets that show. He made comedies over the years. He had strange scenes—as in The Missouri Breaks—where he seemed to know a kind of bliss. Of course he often played desperate characters, and played them with understanding—Last Tango in Paris, Apocalypse Now. Yet even in his dark films, there were instants of insight and pleasure. Such things were within Brando, and he could not help but let them out. He was an actor who sensed the rhythm and release of orgasm. That’s the mercy he pursues in Last Tango.
Try to think of moments where Hoffman disclosed pleasure, or reached for it in his characters. It’s hard. His obnoxious Freddie in The Talented Mr. Ripley is cocksure for a moment or two in his aggressive attitude. In The Master, Lancaster Dodd is often trying to make his followers believe that he is confident and convinced, and he is physically smarter than any other Hoffman character. But he does not persuade us. Nor does Hoffman show much interest or faith in that area of experience.
If I summon up the things he did that seem to me among his best, he is distraught as the nurse in Magnolia, though desperate to comfort the characters played by Jason Robards and Julianne Moore; he finds glee and unthwarted mischief in Capote—but there is a grim price to pay in a film about creative self-destruction; he delivers the expertise and the passion for rock music in Almost Famous; he is a part of the merry con in Charlie Wilson’s War, but he is not surprised when the Julia Roberts character turns him down as a lover. More to the point, there is the hunched acceptance of a disheveled and emotionally futile dismay in his characters: as the gay boom operator hopelessly in love with Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights; the addict in Love Liza (which was written by his brother); the tortured, embezzling, drug-addicted conniving brother in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead; the drag queen in Flawless (is that his funniest film?); the distressed and hounded priest in Doubt; the baseball manager upstaged by new methods in Moneyball; the betrayed political agent in The Ides of March; always the second violin in A Late Quartet; the man driven to make obscene phone calls in Todd Solondz’s Happiness.
Philip Seymour Hoffman worked hard and often, but he was seldom a box office item, and he rarely played successful people. His biggest pictures in terms of his own stardom—The Master and Synecdoche, New York—were commercial disappointments, so the professional actor, with a family to support, was being driven to make payday movies: Mission: Impossible III and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire—the few films in which he does not seem horribly depressed. After all, hit movies do not trade in depression any more than advertisements do.
The most Hoffmanesque of these self-imposed ordeals must be Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, in which the central subject is a life devoted to theater and performance. Hoffman plays a stage director named Caden Cotard. (The Cotard delusion is a real, if rare, condition, in which the victim believes he is dead.) His decline might be comic, or parodic, but for Hoffman’s undeflected conviction. His wife leaves him for a woman, taking their child. He has love affairs, but they crumble. His own body is increasingly subject to ailments and limitations. But he uses a MacArthur fellowship to embark on a large theatrical experiment in which performance may mimic the entire enterprise called life.
Synecdoche is meant to be a perilous, marginal venture—nearly an impossible picture. It has fierce enthusiasts: Roger Ebert wondered if it might be one of the greatest films ever made; Manohla Dargis raved about it; Richard Corliss was another fan. Other critics, and there were many of them, found it pretentious, self-pitying, and humorless. On a budget of $20 million, it had returns of less than $5 million. Set aside the matter of quality (or even the whole estimate of what quality may be), here is a film about theater or putting on a show, surely reliant on Hoffman’s commitment, and played with lugubrious pathos, and which seems to lead to the conclusion that the business of pretending is absurd.
The reason I find Synecdoche close to unwatchable is that its affinity with depression is so complete and claustrophobic. And this is where the accumulation of Hoffman’s achievement as an actor presents an inescapable question: what are we doing, making shows and watching them? I use “shows” in the broadest sense, for Hoffman had a life on stage, too: he played Willie Loman in Death of a Salesman and Austin in True West; he was the elder son in Long Day’s Journey Into Night and Konstantin in The Seagull. Perhaps the deepest dismay at his death, beyond that of personal tragedy, was the realization that we would not see more of him in theater. It was on stage that he was more likely to find the challenging material he needed. For the movies, his tenuous commercial record was catching up with him and making more movies harder to imagine. What else was there to do on screen? Perhaps The Master had been undone by Paul Thomas Anderson’s failure to work out its full thematic (or literary) potential. What other kinds of pain remained available, or appealing? Hoffman’s creative energy seemed on the brink of entropy.
Of course, his death is a play in itself. Perhaps all accidental deaths or suicides prompt the storytelling urge in us. We hardly need to know whether Hoffman was addicted to drugs, or for how long; the actor was attached to pain, dismay, and the implausibility of himself for most of his working life. That’s why it is so hard to watch him without being weighed down by the near-constant message. It is truly remarkable that a man so conventionally unphotogenic sustained a movie career so close to stardom. Moreover, he seemed obsessed by that implausibility. In turn, a generation of actors learned to see him at the same time as a master and a wreck. That riddle is surely hinted at in The Master itself.
It is also a culmination of the culture of acting that has prevailed in America for seventy years—the culture of the Method, Lee Strasberg, and Stanislavski—in which the actor is asked to find the emotions of a role in his own experience. Brando was heretofore the classic example of how that training might take the turmoil in an actor as the material for drama. But Hoffman is imprisoned in his crisis. He was a sublimely gifted player, especially skilled at reticence, masked inwardness, and repressed emotion (indeed, repressed life). But he seemed on the point of losing faith in acting and in the hope that the show might be entertaining. If Synecdoche, New York achieves its aim, it also signals retreat, illness, and closure; it is like an end to movies and the show business.
No movie actor has risked so much on despondency. This is not to say that every film star has been single-mindedly happy: we know enough to appreciate the uneasiness in Chaplin and Keaton, Tracy and Bogart, or Jack Nicholson and Daniel Day-Lewis, from biographical sketches and from some of their screen work. Yet those fellows also exploded with energy, mirth, and motion. It is an intriguing dilemma, and it gets at the heart of what entertainment is meant to be, especially at the movies. Not everyone can be as blithe, fluid, and enchanting as Fred Astaire. Cary Grant once remarked on how he longed to be that Cary Grant fellow whom strangers enjoyed. But in Philip Seymour Hoffman there is something as bleak as the idea of no more fun. That is as hard to take as the loss of someone still young who seemed born to act. It leaves you feeling that we are in a bad place. Are we beginning to wonder if we no longer deserve entertainment?
David Thomson is the film critic for The New Republic and the author, most recently, of Moments That Made the Movies (Thames & Hudson).