Philip Seymour Hoffman is playing Willy Loman on Broadway right now. I know in my very marrow that the performance would wreck me if I saw it. I would have to be carried out at the end.
I hated the play Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller when I read it for the first time. Hated the misery of it. Willy Loman is a shit. I freaking despise that guy. The whole damned dysfunctional family sucks.
But wow, when I disengage from those hateful feelings, I am in awe of Arthur Miller. Can you imagine what it might feel like to be the author of a play that makes somebody react so strongly? I can think of one other piece of writing in which I hated the main character so much, and that is Ignatious Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. Miller and Toole have achieved my powerful emotional response through the mere application of ink to paper. This is a skill I have held as a life’s goal for as long as I can remember. These two writers and their wretched characters have my deepest respect.
Philip Seymour Hoffman is one of my favourite actors. Some actors can pull my emotion out of my gut the way Miller and Toole did with their writing. Hoffman’s characters can be wretched, pathetic, funny, fiercely strong, and always always achingly beautiful because they show us unflinching glimpses of what it’s like to be a person. Hoffman finds a core human soul in his character and translates it for us. He first got to me as Scotty in Boogie Nights. Didn’t your heart just break for Scotty? I know him, that Scotty. He’s been in my life in many scenes, and –as I felt when watching the movie- I just have no idea what to do with him. PSH was the perfect kiss-ass in The Big Lebowski. Watching him I simultaneously wanted to smack him, and knew I would be the same person in that job.
The two roles that friggin’ killed me were Phil in Magnolia and Rusty in Flawless, both 1999. As the empathic hospice care provider, I was utterly convinced of him. “Oh, there’s no asshole like you,” he said. And it was not an insult, but an easy statement of fact, honesty, almost respect (but no respect really), that showed Phil had the courage and compassion to meet –at his level – the jerk who was dying.
See, it’s not just the writing; it’s the actor who can make it come true.
In Flawless… WHY doesn’t everyone love this movie? No one I talk to remembers it. In Flawless, Rusty was the real thing. Pain, love, anger, hunger, tenderness, bitchiness, mothering, beauty and ugliness all came together as clumsily and real as it does in life. PSH’s insecure drag queen playing off Robert De Niro as the epitome of a wounded arrogant asshole, gave me a reason to fall in love with humanity again. And since I saw parts of myself in Rusty – particularly the way a tenderhearted insecure person is willing to take abuse because of the faith that maybe the abuser can one day be reformed – I had a reason to love myself, too.
I haven’t seen all of Hoffman’s work. But after Rusty, I have been a devoted, unconditional fan. It doesn’t matter what he shows me on the screen: I’m all in. Every time.
So put that together with Death of a Salesman, and I throw my hands in the air. I would have no resistance whatsoever. Take me, art. Take me and use me, I am yours.