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Philip Seymour Hoffman And The Blessings Of Friction

Philip Seymour Hoffman, seen here in November, died Sunday.
Robyn Beck
AFP/Getty Images
Philip Seymour Hoffman, seen here in November, died Sunday.

It is already a cliche, born in the past 18 hours, for a writer to puzzle over the task of remembering Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died Sunday. It is indeed hard to figure out what to say about an artist quite so universally admired, and quite so kindly spoken of with such consistency.

Trying to get your arms around the legacy of this particular actor is challenging indeed: He won an Oscar playing Truman Capote; he is beloved by many for his turn as Lester Bangs in Almost Famous; he elevated big-budget movies like The Hunger Games and Mission: Impossible III; and he acted in an imposing stack of movies for great directors — he was in The Master and Magnoliaand Punch-Drunk Love and Boogie Nights for Paul Thomas Anderson, in State and Main for David Mamet, in 25th Hour for Spike Lee, in Synecdoche, New York for Charlie Kaufman. He was in The Big Lebowskiand Doubt. He was in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead and Twister. He was in The Talented Mr. Ripley.

I apologize for the fact that I have just left out many people's favorite Hoffman performances in film, not to mention the entirety of his life in theater. It cannot be helped. There are — it is tired already but entirely true to say — too many to allow a good summary. His career never peaked; it just rang out over and over, and the pain of it for selfish admirers is that the peak might still have been coming. We lost at least 30 years of work yesterday; and 30 years before yesterday, he hadn't even been onscreen yet. He was then seven years away from his screen debut, playing an accused rapist on Law & Order. (Samuel L. Jackson played the defense lawyer.) More than half, in all likelihood, that's what we lost. And it's so sad.

I am tempted to say that for me, what made Hoffman such a powerful weapon for writers and directors was his willingness to ignore likeability — just ignore it, neither press against it nor lean into it — in favor of evoking humanity.

But that's not quite right, because "humanity" sounds too corny. And "sympathy" sounds too one-dimensional. And "empathy" sounds too corny and too vague. It wasn't these things, exactly; it was that he created fully built-out humans, who seemed to have lives and pasts and thoughts besides those they were expressing out loud.

Likeability has a place in film, and in acting. But like so many other things, its successes inspire an imbalanced doubling down, to the point where everything is about either making people like you or making people cringe at you. Hoffman certainly played a few villains, but for the most part, everyone he played resonated as made of flesh and flaws — like real people do, Hoffman characters often appeared to be saying only part of what they knew, and sometimes knowing only part of what they should.

In this Almost Famous clip (which contains a couple of lovely profanities), he gives the kind of speech about the integrity of rock 'n' roll that could come off as insufferable in the hands of many, many actors, or winkingly committed to a sort of great-guy "wisdom of the old geniuses" trope in the hands of others. With Hoffman, this scene has nothing to do with likeability — it has to do with something like friction. Likeability is slick; it sluices off a performance pleasantly but simply. This scene creates all this friction, where it's not entirely clear how much of this is ego and how much of it is generosity and how much of it is wisdom and how much of it is crap. It's friction, but you stay with him, and from 10 seconds into the clip while he's chewing, it creates this sense of wanting to go where he's going and listen to him talk. It is suspenseful chewing, because it allows you, as the audience, a moment of curiosity about him.

Hoffman could create that feeling in very questionable characters, like the cult leader he played in The Master-- and he could do it because the way he persuaded audiences to feel for characters and pay attention to their motives and invest in them was not by appeal to likeability signifiers that are so dominant even with good actors: a twinkly smile, a facile kind of self-deprecation, the carrying-out of grand romantic gestures.

The resonance of Hoffman characters always suggested to me that he had a certain distrust of being liked, a knowledge that it was not the point, and a determination to keep audiences connected to those characters without it.

It's just a horrible loss, all that work, all those people he was still going to play. There's nothing else to feel about it, really, except gratitude, perhaps, for such an overwhelming career that everyone who tries to write about it feels like they're missing half of a story we only got to hear half of in the first place.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.