It was April 2000, I was living in a basement apartment in Manchester, New Hampshire. I had been in the United States for two months. The subzero temperatures of Northern New England were disorienting my biology, which was used to dealing with 100F temperatures in April. A strange place, cold days, colder nights, and nobody to call a friend. Naturally, I resorted to watching movies to kill my time. I bought a VCR and a JVC TV with some assistance from a colleague. There was a Blockbuster store near my apartment and I would rent random movies. One such movie was, “Scent of a Woman“, rented only because it starred Al Pacino. While Mr. Pacino chews up the entire movie, one other actor that stood out in his small role as the super-rich kid, George. I had no idea who this actor was, but his performance left a mark nonetheless. In the same week, I watched Paul Thomas Anderson‘s Boogie Nights. I spotted the same actor playing another supporting character, Scotty J who is hopelessly (secretly) in love with the lead character, Dirk Diggler. I had to look him up, and found out that the actor was Philip Seymour Hoffman (PSH). I still didn’t quite grasp why I was enamored by his performances, especially when they were smaller roles in the bigger scheme of both of these movies. Nevertheless, I scanned the Blockbuster store for more of PSH’s movies and rented – The Talented Mr Ripley, Magnolia, Almost Famous, and State and Main. In each of these movies, he played supporting characters and I was completely taken by each one of them.
To me, the greatest achievement in a performance is when I am never reminded that it’s a performance, when the character and the person playing the character become one, when they seem like people who could “be”. For every performance an actor has to adapt to the role, but yet, their personality somehow shines through the characters they embody (I don’t mean this in a negative way). For example, think of roles essayed by these legends of cinema – Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, Amitabh Bachchan, Meena Kumari, Jack Nicholson, Dilip Kumar, Humphrey Bogart, Helen Mirren, Peter O’Toole, etc. I bet my cinematic eyes, there isn’t one performance that you can point out with enough conviction, where you could say – “I didn’t for once think that this was Al/Meryl/Jack/Amitabh…etc.” This is not to say that this makes them inferior actors, but to say that their personas are/were bigger than the people they played on-screen. Somewhere, their real star-self lingered on. With PSH, it’s the exact opposite – he makes the character he is playing bigger and more palpable than him. No matter how good or bad the movie, no matter the genre of the movie, no matter the quality or the target audience of the movie – whether it be artsy films like the Paul Thomas Anderson movies OR the low-brow Ben Stiller/Jennifer Aniston rom-com “Along Came Polly” OR the corny disaster flick “Twister“, PSH was always 100% in the character.
After the character gigs, Hollywood took heed and cast him in lead roles, one such being his Oscar-winning performance as Truman Capote in “Capote“. While, I enjoyed the movie and his performance, it left me a bit “meh”. (Bring on the brickbats!). Let me explain the “meh”-ness. No doubt, it is a powerful scene stealing performance, but that’s what takes it away from what I expect of PSH- he is at his best when he embodies the characters who are away from the spotlight, who are not meant to be the “focus” of the narrative drive and our emotional attachment to the happenings in the movie. What he does with these side characters is remarkable – he brings them to life when the writers, the director, the cinematography, are squarely focused on the lead characters and the central narrative. It was this quality in PSH, that drew me to him. When he became the central character, the rest of the film-making machinery was also with him, and so in my head it meant – his performance got all the support to make it shine. I cannot emphasize enough that, this in no way made him a lesser actor, NO – I am merely talking about my perception about his performances in supporting versus central characters.
In part 1 of this series, I talked about why Farooque Shaikh was so dear to me as an actor – he connected with me at an emotional level, primarily because I watched his movies in the formative years of my life (early teens). His characters were recognizable and familiar (for the most part) and there was a sense of comfort watching them. Whereas, most of PSH’s characters lived on the sidelines of the worldly definition of “normal” – they were as unfamiliar (to me) as they can get. Many of them were twisted, evil, self-centered, uncool, reckless, pathetic losers, – people you would voluntarily avoid association with. And yet, he portrayed them with such a perfect mix of compassion and craziness that you saw the “human-ness” in them. Thus, PSH”s connection is more at a cerebral level. I got to watch his movies at a time of my life when I understood the art of “performance”, the fact that I knew that movies are all make-believe and yet I “believed” in his characters, believed that they are “real people”, he prodded me to understand these characters and empathize with them no matter how alien they were to me.
When the news of his untimely death flashed on my phone, I had a massive knot in my stomach, a gut-wrenching scream of “no” echoed between my ears. I did not know PSH as a person, but knowing the way he died, I can say that he had many demons inside of him that he battled through his living days. Did these demons, these battles make him what he was as an actor? I do not know, I do not care! He remains, to me a performer who made me keenly aware of those who live on the sidelines, he shone light on people who we quite regularly (to no fault of ours) ignore and carry on with our versions of a “normal life”. He showed that these un-normal people are “people” too with a beating heart, just like the one inside my anatomy. For that I am ever so thankful that such an actor existed and enriched my movie watching experiences.
Here’s a wonderful visual tribute to Philip Seymour Hoffman.