I remember discovering Philip Seymour Hoffman for the first time at the movies. It was in Scent of a Woman. He looked like no one else you’d ever seen on screen before, and yet he was someone you immediately recognized as real. He played a bully in Scent and was more or less the villain of the movie, but something in his performance suggested an inner torment and that made him all the more recognizably human. His work in this movie was hard to forget. Maybe it was because we had never seen him before. Maybe it was because, as they’ve been saying, he was on his way to being the greatest actor of our generation.
He was a familiar face in Hollywood movies over the next couple of years. Because he was so indelible in Scent, it was hard not to feel that tingle of excitement every time he appeared on screen, even in forgettable movies. I really liked him as another bully, the cop who gets punched out by Paul Newman in Nobody’s Fool. Then came the unforgettable sequence where he played a degenerate gambler taunting Philip Baker Hall in Hard Eight (aka Sidney). That started a series of films with Paul Thomas Anderson. It was in their next collaboration, Boogie Nights, where, in one scene, the camera uncomfortably gazes on his character, the hapless boom operator Scotty, after he’s been rebuffed by Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler. Barely choking back the tears, Scotty performs a unique brand of self-flagellation, repeating, mantra-like, “I’m a fuggin’ idiot!” Was this the first time we shared a “private” moment with one of Hoffman’s characters on screen? I think it was the first of many times that he broke my heart.
This ability to play self-loathing characters who put up a false front while falling apart inside would turn out to be his specialty: Happiness, Almost Famous, Love Liza, Owning Mahowny, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Synecdoche, New York, and The Master. The Oscars like to reward actors for historical impersonations, but his Truman Capote was so much more than just mimicry in a standard biopic. It was a vivid and moving portrait of an artist who was ultimately crippled by his own self-doubts.
I lived in Rochester for a little more than nine years while I worked at George Eastman House, and I became very close with Phil’s mother, Marilyn O’Connor. Through her influence, and the influence of Phil’s brother Gordy, we were able to bring Phil in for a screening of Love Liza at the Dryden. After the screening, I hosted a Q&A with Phil and Gordy (who wrote the film), but I don’t remember what we talked about. I do remember, just after the movie began, talking excitedly just outside the theater doors with Gordy and my brother Pat (he had become friendly with Phil after they both appeared in Magnolia). We must have been loud, because Phil, who was inside watching the opening of the movie, came out and shushed and scowled at us. He was right, of course.
About a year later, Phil and Gordy were home for the holidays and Gordy invited me to join his family in seeing the third Lord of the Rings movie. We went to a multiplex in Henrietta and Phil was very relaxed. I only noticed him being recognized once or twice and he was very sweet with anyone who approached him. Phil sat one row behind me and Gordy. The ubiquitous pre-feature trailers seemed to go on forever. One of the trailers seemed determined to overwhelm us with bombast and swagger: “Now,” read the on-screen text accompanied by thundering music, “the epic action-adventure the world has been waiting for…” Phil leaned forward between me and his brother and, before we could find out what this “must-see” entertainment was titled, he whispered, “The Gin Game!” Before we stopped laughing, he leaned forward again and murmured, “Mornings at Seven!”
The next month, Phil came back to Eastman House to present a documentary he appeared in called The Party’s Over. We talked afterward and he answered audience questions. I don’t remember much else about the evening, but my pal Bruce Bennett was there, and he reminded me that a teenage kid stood up and tried to explain how much Phil’s performances meant to him. He struggled in finding the right words and he finally just asked Phil if he could have a hug. Bruce remembers Phil as being “totally moved and disarmed and surprised by all the emotion clumsily and honestly pouring out of this young guy who clearly didn’t get to express his feelings too often” Phil quickly replied and said “yeah, sure, of course” and the two embraced. Bruce says, “People forget how much personal impact actors can have. I don’t think anyone’s ever asked to hug [Paul Thomas Anderson] because of a camera move he blocked or a line of dialogue he typed.”
I saw Phil a few more times over the years; once at his mother’s birthday celebration, another time at a party after the Toronto premiere of Capote. I last saw him introduce a movie he directed and appeared in, Jack Goes Boating, at Sundance in 2010. It was a nice little movie, based on a play in which he had also appeared. I regret never being able to see him perform live on stage.
These few, brief personal encounters were pleasant and memorable for me. They gave me little insight into what drove him as an artist. I only know that he consistently surprised me and moved me with his honesty and his understanding of human beings.
Jim Healy was the Assistant Curator, Exhibitions in the Moving Image Department at George Eastman House from 2001-2010. He is currently the Director of Programming for the University of Wisconsin - Madison Cinematheque.