His is an estimable and enviable filmography--not a bad movie to be found, if you're willing to overlook Patch Adams, Twister and a few smaller offerings no one saw anyway. But even in the worst of films, and even in drag opposite Robert De Niro, Philip Seymour Hoffman keeps intact his dignity and pride; he has yet to be hollowed by Hollywood. Hoffman has been a constant in the art-house sprawl of Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love) and other personal films by oddballs (Todd Solondz's Happiness), pros (Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous) and wizards (Anthony Minghella's The Talented Mr. Ripley and the forthcoming Cold Mountain), and never does he betray the audience's growing admiration for an actor willing to play painfully small and recognizably human. We see in his doughy body, soft face and sad eyes a reflection of ourselves; he never acts, to the point where it's as though everyone else around him is reading from the script he never got.
Hoffman, powerful as the lonely but not-so-meek schoolteacher in Spike Lee's underrated and underseen 25th Hour, at long last takes top billing in Love Liza, written by his brother Gordy and directed by his friend Todd Louiso (Jack Black's pal, or not, in High Fidelity), in which he's a man dealing with the sudden death of his wife and diving deep into the pool of despair. Though it's likely the feel-awful movie of the year, too often lumped in with Morvern Callar, another art-house suicide note due shortly, Love Liza provides Hoffman with what he's long deserved: a movie of his own.
Dallas Observer: It seems you would need to be surrounded by guys you trust for a role like this one, especially for the first film you're asked to carry on your back.
Philip Seymour Hoffman: I think that--how to put it?--I don't think this is a star vehicle, you know what I mean? It wasn't a conscious thing about, "Wow, I have a lead in a movie." This basically was my next part, and I happened to be the lead in the movie and happened to be the one cast in it because no one else was gonna make it. So we got together $900,000 and did it...I wanted to play a part about grief and depression that had to do with what grief and depression really are over a short period of time. It's not something that goes away. It's not something that somebody can come in and help you with. That, more than anything, is why I did it, and I think I would feel more of what you're saying if I had a lead in a much higher profile picture.
DO: Even in the big movies, a Red Dragon, you're always the most human guy in the movie--the most recognizable dude in the movie, the one to which the audience most relates.
PSH: Everything I've done might be culminating in something, but I don't think that's actually happened yet--where I've actually done that thing that I think is whatever. I guess some actors have that movie in their career, and right now I feel like I have a lot of films I've done I'm very proud of, but there's not one I go, "Boom, that's the one that I culminated in." This movie definitely is a step forward in the fact of just how uncompromising this film was, and just how much work I had to put into it every day, which I'm not used to on a film. And the fact, yes, ultimately this film was about being alone with this lead character. It's not a film you watch through other people. It's a character where the camera's laying on his face for an hour and a half, and that was new to me, period, to be a character so alone and so isolated.
DO: Watching the film all I kept thinking was it's a one-man performance. That's what I am talking about--the burden of staring into the camera, of having it stare back only at you.
PSH: Yeah, it's tough. It's tough in a work way, not life tough. (He laughs.) But, yeah, I kinda forgot about it after a while, to tell the truth. It was in the first week of shooting I accepted the fact that part of what this film was about was that the camera was going to be alone with me a lot of the time and that I had to act privately a lot of the time. The camera can only shoot your hands and feet in a wide shot for so long before it's gonna come in on your head and stay there, because the story's about what's going on in that man's eyes for an hour and a half.
DO: The kind of movies you make are about real people in painful or at least truthful circumstances. Are those the films to which you are immediately attracted?
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PSH: Absolutely. Yeah, I have to say if there's any similarity in what I do, it's the fact I am attracted to things like that. I direct a little bit here in New York, and one of the things when I'm directing I always try to tell the actors, because it's always something I try to remember to tell myself, is the people you're playing aren't actors. If there's anything similar from role to role, job to job, it's that I really, really try very hard to make sure the person I play has nothing to do with acting, that the person I play has no knowledge of what acting is at all, so therefore would react accordingly so. I think Spike Lee is huge like that. I think Paul Thomas Anderson's huge like that. Those guys definitely are attracted to and want to do things that aren't about people who have anything to do with the movie industry--unless you're talking about Paul and the porn industry.
DO: Do people recognize that in you, or is it hard, given this isn't an industry interested in small movies about small people and small pains...
PSH: No, it's not, and they do make those movies, that's for sure, but sometimes they take those movies and make them big things, anyway, which is what happens a lot. I dunno. I think [last] year, to be quite honest, was one of the better years for the studios and the independent movement and younger directors and older directors all struggling with trying to make artful work--not always successfully. It doesn't really even matter at the end of the day. But I see that happening, and I hope it keeps moving in that direction, because I think inevitably we're educating an audience to watching lots of different kinds of movies. I think more people saw at the end of the year a kind of independent-flavored film, more than we saw in recent years, and that can only be a good thing.
Love Liza Philip Seymour Hoffman, among the handful of Great American Actors, carries his grief in his gut, on his slumped shoulders, behind his dead-to-the-world eyes; his is the limping strut of a man walking to the gallows of his own volition. Such is the performance he brings to Love Liza, in which Hoffman plays Wilson Joel, a Web site designer whose wife committed suicide (before the film opens) and left behind a note he refuses to open, either because he doesn't want to know why she permanently parked in the garage or because he knows it will be the last time they'll communicate. Wilson takes to sleeping on the floor, ignores his mother-in-law (Kathy Bates), starts huffing gasoline for the dizzying escape and begins tinkering with remote-control planes to mask his addiction; by film's end, he's left with nothing, where once, a bitter Bates reminds, "You had everything!" Director Todd Louiso wrings all he can from performers and audience alike; your reward for suffering alongside Wilson, affable even in his self-destruction, is complete devastation. The movie doesn't end; it, like Wilson, just gives up, and you're wrecked by the hopelessness. Not a happy ending, just a very real one. (R.W.)