Thursday, February 6, 2014

But If You Try Sometimes, You Can Get What You Need: Philip Seymour Hoffman and Christopher Jones

The public outpouring of shock and grief in response to the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman has made it clear that the actor’s fan base was not just broader but far more deeply committed than some of us ever realized. (So have some other emotions that have been expressed in the wake of tragedy, such as the tsunami of angry disgust that’s hit those people, not all of them on-line, who saw it as occasion to proclaim their moral superiority to someone suffering from drug addiction.) Like Gene Hackman, Hoffman didn’t look like a movie star. And although he had a few starring roles in movies—his Oscar-winning turn as Truman Capote; a schlub plotting a robbery in Sidney Lumet’s last film; Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead; the Charlie Kaufman head trip Synecdoche, New York; as well as Jack Goes Boating, which he directed, and Love Liza, which his brother, Gordy Hoffman, wrote—he hadn’t quite made the definitive leap to leading man that Hackman had made by the time he was in his mid-forties.

But Hoffman shared Hackman’s ability to simply, quietly become someone else, without any show of actorly “transformation.” Compared to the more glamorous leading men of their time, both looked as if they were made of common clay, but their range seemed limitless, and both of them were willing to play irredeemable slimeballs, for all the juicy entertainment that such roles are good for. Yet they were also capable of playing good men in a way that didn’t make goodness seem ordinary or boring.  Hoffman had the kind of talent, and made the kind of use of it, that inspired not just admiration but love. Audiences might have watched someone like Tom Cruise and seen in him the person they’d sometimes like to be, but they watched Hoffman—as, say, Lester Bangs in Almost Famous, telling a young, aspiring writer not to get hung up on the feelings of inadequacy that the rock stars he idolizes inspire in him—and saw themselves. Hoffman had a gift for capturing the least-loved parts of our selves, the parts that feel unlovely and unloved and alone, and making them seem interesting and appealing. So maybe it’s no wonder that a surprising number of people heard that he had died and felt that they’d lost a friend.

In thinking of counterweights to Hoffman, Tom Cruise comes to mind partly because they worked together a couple of times. Hoffman played the villain in the third of Cruise’s Mission: Impossible movies, where the contrast between them produces a few moments of high comedy, especially in a confrontation scene in which, thanks to the hero being a master of disguise, Hoffman gets to play both parts. But the Hoffman performance that probably meant the most to me is in Magnolia (1999), Paul Thomas Anderson’s follow-up to his breakout porn-scene hit Boogie Nights. (Anderson used Hoffman in five of the six movies he released during the actor’s lifetime.) Magnolia is a movie that rewrites the book on love-it-hate-it films; an ambitious, sometimes wild-eyed plea for sincerity and common decency, it has always inspired open mockery in some and slightly embarrassed reverence in others. (I’m in the latter camp.)

Hoffman plays a nurse tending to a rich old cancer patient (Jason Robards) who isn’t going to survive the night. Robards has an estranged son, played by Cruise, who has become a motivational speaker, delivering heated, unhinged lectures to male audiences about how to become a sexual success by viewing women as garbage. Cruise’s performance is anything but subtle, but there’s an exciting element built into the casting, which dares the audience to pick up on similarities between this egomaniacal, seethingly resentful misogynist and the qualities that made Top Gun Tom the movie star who defined America’s fantasy life during the Reagan ‘80s. Anderson’s intentions are most fully realized during Hoffman’s long scene on the telephone; trying to contact Cruise to let him know that his father is dying and wants to see him, beseeching people to interrupt the boss’ big night and ask him to come visit the old man. “I know this sounds silly, and I know he may sound ridiculous,” he says, desperately asking strangers to go that extra mile for him, while assuring them, for the sake of their dignity and his own, that he does understand that this is not how the world works. “This is the scene of the movie where you help me out.”

It may be the most implausible thing in a movie that features a rain of frogs, but when you hear Hoffman speak his lines, it wouldn’t seem that unlikely for him to talk someone into giving him nuclear launch codes. It’s easy to think of any number of young male actors who could have played Cruise’s role. (The hard part might be trying to think of one who couldn’t; Jack McBrayer might have a little trouble with it, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t love to see him give it a shot.) I can’t think of anyone who I’m sure could have made Hoffman’s phone scene as compelling, and as believable. Trying to imagine Magnolia without Hoffman, on one end of that phone, is one way of suggesting the bounds of what we’ve lost.

Christopher Jones, who died two days before Hoffman, at the age of 72, was another actor who, like Tom Cruise, was pretty much a stone movie star. Jones had the kind of career that star-struck kids dream about. No one ever seems to have looked at him and thought, “I guess he’ll do for the chorus.” After making his Broadway debut at twenty in Tennessee Williams’ The Night of the Iguana, he got a job playing the starring role in the TV series The Legend of Jesse James, then starred in a handful of low-budget movies, most notably the A.I.P. films Wild in the Streets (1968) and Three in the Attic (1968). He had an edgy, smoldering quality—sexy but not easily likable—that made him a perfect counterculture movie hero for the kind of exploitation movies that partially redeemed their own crudeness by playing around with material and subject matter that the big studios were still afraid of. (Everyone who wrote a word about Jones in the ‘60s seems to have compared him to James Dean, which must have been easy shorthand then for unfocused but exciting youthful distrust of authority. To my eyes, Jones is more like a slightly warmer-blooded young Christopher Walken, with a hint of the sneering-faced character heavy Billy Drago—the guy Kevin Costner threw off a roof in The Untouchables.)

Jones quickly made the leap to bigger movies—starting with the 1968 The Looking Glass War and then the 1970 David Lean epic Ryan’s Daughter. Expensively made and more respectable than the films he starred in that can still be watched with pleasure, they are terrible, and Jones is a vacuum in them: he wasn’t having fun working like this, and the feeling was contagious. So he up and quit. (In an interview given to a British newspaper in 2007, Jones said that he was already in a bad emotional place during the unconscionably prolonged shooting schedule of Ryan’s Daughter because he had been having an affair with Sharon Tate in the months before she was murdered by the Manson family, a tidbit that ought to earn him his own special wing of any ‘60s edition of Hollywood Babylon.)

Contrary to the end, he turned down the role of the back-room rapist Zed in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, then agreed to appear, looking ravaged but as magnetic as ever, in a tiny role in Mad Dog Time, a strange folly written and directed by Tarantino sidekick Larry Bishop. That was his only screen time during the last 33 years of his life. He knew what he enjoyed doing and what he was good at, and showed no interest in doing it any longer if that meant becoming bloated and bored. So, that’s one round he won over David Lean. Jones didn’t leave behind anything like the body of work that Hoffman did, but maybe that just means that, unlike other cult-worthy minor screen legends, he spared future fans the bother of sifting through scores of busywork credits looking for the few good nuggets.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club.

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