Up from the Underground

Riviera Award, Saturday, February 11, 8 p.m., Marjorie Luke Theatre

Yes, it’s well and good that the world at large has come to know the name Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose knock-out performance in Capote is rightfully racking up trophies in the awards season (a Golden Globe and Los Angeles Film Critics Award so far, and an Oscar nomination with good odds for winning). But for those who have followed the unusual, unusually compelling, and vaguely weird actor’s work so far, Capote is just the popcorn machine in a brilliant career on the sidelines.

Working in films directed by independent-minded and thinking-person’s directors P.T. Anderson, Todd Solondz, and the almighty Coen brothers, among others, Hoffman has been allowed to carve out a substantial body of work, on the fringes. Film lovers have had Hoffman in their sights for a decade. The “normal” world, the world where Joe American lives, is now just catching on. They’ll have a new perspective when they go back to DVD land and see Hoffman’s small, choice performances in films as diverse as Scent of a Woman, Almost Famous, and Cold Mountain, or when he appears in the next installment of the Mission: Impossible franchise.

A surprisingly vast background will no doubt come to light when Hoffman is fêted at the Marjorie Luke Theatre on Saturday night, when the actor is given his Riviera Award by the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. More than any of the other tributes in this year’s SBIFF, namely George Clooney, Naomi Watts, and Heath Ledger, Hoffman truly belongs in the environment of a film festival, one which celebrates artistic achievement over commerciality—for the most part, at least. The others on the 2006 tribute list are beautiful and bankable people who have mixed in some good work with their dogs and their box-office bingos—their King Kongs and Ocean’s Elevens.

For his part, the theater-trained Hoffman is cut from different stock. He’s stocky, for one, nobody’s particular idea of screen-brightening beauty, and made of an amazing expressive thespian rubber. Who else could have inhabited such divergent roles as the stubbly, volatile thug in Punch Drunk Love and the drifting soul in the roughly poetic and too-little-seen Love Liza? In this film, he plays the starring role, as a man in and out of sanity after his girlfriend’s suicide, and killing his brain cells and will to live by sniffing gasoline. (Hoffman is quite possibly the only Hollywood protagonist whose monkey-on-the-back is an obsession with gas cans.) Love, and the tortuous pursuit thereof, takes other nasty turns in Solondz’s troubling, darkly comic Happiness, with Hoffman as a logically cast central force in the film. Those are but a few of the many memorable stops along the meandering path of Hoffman’s filmography, mostly built on character-actor moments and feats in the sidelines.

Another telling title on Hoffman’s résumé is State and Main, the juicy film-about-film piece by David Mamet, the playwright-cum-director. Theater, in fact, has played a significant role in Hoffman’s artistic life, and accounts for some of his special skill. High school theater gave him his first taste, in his hometown of Rochester, New York, where he was born in 1967. After studying drama at NYU, Hoffman worked in theater before sneaking into the movie world, while continuing to pursue work on the boards. His kudos in theater include Tony nominations for work in Sam Shepard’s True West and Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, a far cry from the world of Mission: Impossible.

His natural attraction to independent films (not to mention the easier access to work), began with the 1991 film Triple Bogey on a Par Five Hole, and led him into worthwhile left-of-mainstream films like Boogie Nights and The Talented Mr. Ripley. He seemed ideally cut out for films with an alternative or iconoclastic bent.

Which is not to take anything away from Capote, the vehicle that has now propelled him into the general-public spotlight like never before. The awards trade has it right this time. Hoffman was absolutely the right man for the job in Capote, written by Dan Futterman and directed by Bennett Miller. Although this was his first biopic encounter—with its implicit responsibility to embody the historical subject rather than create an as-yet nonexistent person—Hoffman magically transformed himself into the guise of the celebrated and tortured writer. He applied a fierce commitment to the role and a chameleon’s allegiance to the real-life character in the film’s title, akin to Joaquin Phoenix’s remarkable Johnny Cash in Walk the Line.

The aspect that gives Capote an edge over other films in the questionable genre of the biopic is its tight focus on a pivotal moment in the subject’s life rather than a sweeping inventory of said life. And Hoffman digs into that catalyst juncture in the life of Truman Capote, as the writer threw himself into the heartland murder story to create the seminal non-fiction “New Journalism” masterpiece In Cold Blood. Capote was permanently scarred by the experience, as he both exploited and developed emotional bonds with his execution-bound subject, Perry Smith. The by-now-infamous scene when Capote bids goodbye to Smith on death row is a classic emotional breakdown scene, notable in part because of the dizzying and contradictory range of emotional impulses Hoffman summons up in that room. In that scene, alone, we feel the seeds of Capote’s demise as a stable human, and artist.

In a sense, Capote was both a departure and a natural extension in Hoffman’s work. It is, on some level, the “straightest” role he’s played on film, with clearly defined attributes and dramatic objectives. Task number one was to inhabit the mannerisms, the vocal and physical comportment of a well-known American celebrity, before Hoffman could begin to get to work on his more internal churnings and motives. We sense more of a quality of inventive character-sculpting for his roles in Magnolia and The Big Lebowski, for instance.

Glittery mantelpieces aside, one of the real boons of Hoffman’s current awards season coup is that he may have now achieved a rare state of grace in the film medium, and will be viewed as an actor of great integrity, who is also suitable for the mainstream. Ideally, Hoffman will continue to operate on multiple levels, appearing in multiplexes as well as at film festivals near us. Time and the industry will tell

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