It is both fitting and ironic that Philip Seymour Hoffman died Super Bowl Sunday. On that great feast day devoted to ersatz glory and false heroism, one of the realest of real people plaintively bowed out. If it turned out we were not alone in the universe, and aliens came to earth looking for just one human being to act a part and represent the whole imago dei in some intergalactic, multi-species drama, I’d have sent Hoffman. He was sad like a human, fat like a human, aggravated like a human. His mouth often turned down when he smiled. His body bore the signs of a man who wasn’t given to controlling his passions. He seemed to never open his eyes very wide, and often looked as though peering through a crowd for someone or something more interesting in the back of the room. That’s the look of distraction, of dissatisfaction. That’s the human look.
I first found Hoffman in Magnolia. Hoffman played nurse Phil Parma, a soft and buttery name for an appropriately doughy actor to embody. The longsuffering Phil takes care of Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), a dying crank who pretends to not enjoy company while he is slowly eaten up by regret over his selfish life. Hoffman plays Parma as an old pro in the hospice game, patiently enduring Earl’s not entirely good-natured verbal abuse. The script allows for a lot of leeway in what kind of person Parma might be, and how he might respond to his central labor in the narrative. Parma becomes the midwife who delivers the movie’s greatest reconciliation, but nothing in the dialog necessarily kept Hoffman from playing the character as a commander, in-charge, brilliantly orchestrating the meeting between Earl and his long lost son before the old man passed away. Parma needs information, he needs to persuade strangers to grant him access to the son, but Hoffman doesn’t play the part like an air-traffic controller. For Hoffman, Parma knows what is possible; a father and son who hate each other might know a brief moment of mutual sympathy and forgiveness before the great chasm of death separates them. Otherwise, they will forever remain enemies. How would a good person handle this situation? This seems Hoffman’s interest in Parma.
For most of his screen time, Hoffman is alone, often on the phone. As Earl sleeps, Phil channel surfs, his mouth open and his eyes glazed over. At this point, we are yet early in the story, and none of the (many, many) characters in the film have ceded their secrets; our guard is up, and we have not decided who we like and who we do not. The prologue of the film insinuates the world is a bizarre place governed by a God Who is ever criss-crossing human lives, and yet for purposes which often evade human comprehension. Chance is not benign, every event possesses a lurking meaning. When Phil briefly pauses his channel surfing on a pornographic movie, we are tempted to remove him from our sympathies, but Hoffman gives us one knowing blink as he looks on before repairing to the kitchen to place a phone call to the Pink Dot for groceries.
PD: What would you like?
PP: I’d like to get an order of peanut butter… cigarettes, Camel Lights, water…
PD: Bottled water?
PP: No. You know what, forget the water. Just give me a loaf of bread. White bread. And do you have
PP: Okay, one of those. And… uh… Penthouse? The magazine? You have that?
PP: One of those. And, uhm… Hustler?
PP: You have that?
PD: Yes. Is that it?
PP: Yeah, that’s it.
PD: Do you still want the peanut butter, bread and cigarettes?
PP: Yeah… What?
The Pink Dot operator is a woman, and while he is not looking at her face to face, Hoffman is embarrassed. “You have that?” Parma asks, Hoffman’s voice very high with feigned surprise, as though it were an old-fashioned candy he hadn’t seen for sale in years and just has to have one for old time’s sake. The exposition of Magnolia is blistering, though, and the possibility opens up in the course of the phone conversation that Parma is a pervert among a cast of seeming perverts, though Hoffman plays his own part somewhere between an innocent and a trickster. When Phil asks about Hustler, he begins to massage his forehead, smiling incredulously at himself, as though he is both acting out a plan, but also beholding himself as an actor, and part of something greater which a strange God is leading him through.
Later, of course, we find Phil only ordered the magazines because he suspected an advertisement might be found in the back of one for Seduce and Destroy, a self-help program for lascivious men run by Earl’s estranged son. On the phone with Seduce and Destroy, Phil negotiates his way from customer service reps up to supervisors; he orates the film itself to a lackey, trembling and desperate.
(From the shooting script)
Parma: I know this all seems silly. I know that maybe I sound ridiculous, like maybe this is the scene of the movie where the guy is trying to get a hold of the long-lost son, but this is that scene. Y’know? I think they have those scenes in movies because they’re true, because they really happen. And you gotta believe me: This is really happening. See: See: See this is the scene of the movie where you help me out.
Because Hoffman did not insist on playing Parma like a boss, but made him humble, servile, suppliant, the character yields to a power beyond the fictitious world of the film. Parma seems to appeal directly to writer and director Paul Thomas Anderson when he declares this “the scene of the movie where you help me out,” and if that seems a wonky claim, consider the fourth and fifth wall wrecking- balls hard at work elsewhere in the film. Hoffman is nervous as a priest, though, conveying messages to characters from the author and back again. In his retrospective on Hoffman, Anthony Lane noted that few actors use their hands as well as Hoffman; in Magnolia, Hoffman’s hands are often near his face, as though protecting himself from a dangerous proximity to the divine.
Hoffman’s exhausted, disenchanted, been-there-done-that, dissatisfied face brought years of experience to every role; no matter the profession, the labor, the work of the character he portrayed, I always believed he had been at it for his entire life. In Mission: Impossible III, Owen Davian has been killing cops and feds for so long, he’s not willing to entertain the possibility they can win. Tom Cruise straps Davian to a chair and begins his inquisition, but Davian is deaf to all Hunt’s questions; instead, Davian describes, between Hunt’s failing intimidations, the ways he will torture Hunt’s girlfriend or wife or whoever, despite the fact it seems he, Davian, has lost the game. Hoffman grants Davian a look of such resolution, such faith in the declining slope of earthly justice, it seems a plot gap that he ultimately dies. Plenty of actors have portrayed villains who ultimately win, yet none has conveyed the martyr’s absolute certainty of Hoffman’s Davian. Hoffman could communicate the inevitable in a way, again, which often made him seem less an actor than an omniscient Greek chorus.
He had a tendency of playing outlandish figures as ordinary men. Even Lancaster Dodd, a character based on one of the 20th century’s most notorious nut jobs, plays on the screen as a fellow with such ordinary problems, any honest moviegoer can find himself in Hoffman’s tightrope walk between unshakable confidence and laughable overconfidence. At times, Hoffman speaks in sharp and even enunciation, as though the world were listening in to his most intimate conversations, taking notes. Even Dodd’s most confident proclamations are imbued with that formal quality of a knowing performance— looking high to the rafters, speaking to the back of the room, schooled gesticulation, studied inclinations of the neck; Hoffman hangs out in the ambiguity which exists in Dodd’s own mind about whether “The Cause” is or is not actually on to something. The now well-known “I love Kools” outtakes from The Master show Hoffman playing Dodd like a spokesman, although he should be at a state of ease. The best thieves carry on as though someone’s looking, even while they’re alone. In long passages of the film, Dodd seems like he’s making up everything as he goes along; Hoffman has to calculate what it looks like to be uncalculated, loose. He has to know that some of what Dodd says is fact and some is pure fantasy— every line he speaks is a risk of exposing how tinctured his truths are in babble.
But does he finally mean well? He reminds me of nearly every authority figure I’ve ever known, myself included. We’ve all been winging it for so long, we’re pros, and we’ve forgotten where and when one reality melted into the other. Philip Seymour Hoffman was one of the great students of that moment, that transition, that perpetual becoming.