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Daphne Merkin

Philip Seymour Hoffman: A Small Boy Chased By Furies

I first noticed Philip Seymour Hoffman in a big way when I was reviewing movies for this magazine and spotted him—I referred to him as “the scene-stealing Philip Seymour Hoffman”—playing Scotty J., a chubby gofer with an abject crush on Mark Wahlberg’s character in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1997 film, “Boogie Nights.” Hoffman made an impression on me then, as he continued to do in his later roles, as someone who was more than familiar with the forces of darkness in himself—to be specific, with the nub of chagrined self-loathing that impels many of his best moments on film and on stage. In this instance, he was called upon to plant a lunging run of a kiss on the mouth of unreceptive porn star Dirk Diggler (Wahlberg); that he does so with such aching klutziness, such awareness of the debasement that lies in wait, made me think that he was drawing on something he knew intimately, some psychic well down which he had fallen in the past and remembered, up here on the ground.

There was something about his physical presence, as well—the flushed-looking face and small, acute blue eyes, the slightly blubbery body and hesitant manner of speech, just this side of a stammer (although he could also speak with great force, when the role called for it)—that suggested a core, enduring discomfort in his own skin, and certainly a resistance to being in the world as a movie star, whatever that might mean in terms of trading in a tattered experience of the self for a more polished version. To put it another way, he seemed skinless, lacking a filter between him and the impingements of everything that went on around him. This was undoubtedly what made him the glorious character actor he became, able to impersonate Truman Capote’s fey presence as effectively as he portrayed the prototypical American con man in “The Master.” But it was also what made him vulnerable to despair. In another day and age he might have sought out other kinds of help than the numbing consolations of heroin, the way that Brando and Pacino (not to overlook Monroe) turned to intensive psychotherapy. I have no idea whether Hoffman ever did look to the talking cure in any serious way, but I somehow doubt it. For one thing, therapy isn’t in hip repute and moves at a glacial pace; for another, it doesn’t fix anything so much as require that you learn to accommodate yourself around what can’t be fixed.

The New Yorker | February 5, 2014.


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