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

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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