Hoffman as Salesman

Philip Seymour Hoffman as Willy Loman

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.

Philip Seymour Hoffman as Rusty, in the movie Flawless.

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.

5 thoughts on “Hoffman as Salesman

  1. I *loved* Flawless! I haven’t seen it since it came out on video (woooo, long time ago), but I remember it well. It’s a fantastic movie.

    Mind you, I hate Death of a Salesman. I couldn’t connect with the characters at all. It was supposed to be moving for Willy’s family – you were supposed to hate him and feel for his wife and kids, but in the end I just…didn’t care. I don’t know. Something about Willy’s character just put me off so much that I couldn’t even feel sympathy for his family. (I had to read it, perform it, and watch it in high school — for one English class. We saw the Dustin Hoffman/John Malkovich film, and even though I love those actors…just couldn’t get into it.)

  2. I saw the Hoffman/Malkovich version, and oddly enough enjoyed it. Am I the odd one of the group??? The story has incredible depth and does bring out emotions within us that we may not want to feel. It has been years and I don’t remember details but I do remember being glued to the boob tube (and VCR) and finally unplugging the phone from the wall because of it’s constant interruption. LOL.
    I also remember seeing Flawless. The title escaped me but your picture brought back the memory. Thank you Cuz!! I am a fan of it too, so I must not be too bonkers.
    With the right actors and company, I might just might mind you go see Death of a Salesman in person if I was PAID. In the meantime, my ultimate goal is to head to Ashland, OR for the Shakespearean Festival. Any takers?
    Cuz Debbie

    1. Oh, cuz, I am certain you would be in the majority group for liking Death of a Salesman. It has remained an American classic for a reason! I will likely want to see this newest version of it too, which is sort of what I was sneaking in between the lines here, too. I like to be provoked when I view art. And Ashland…. what time of year is that? I’m coming home in October, but I think I’ll miss it at that point. Love you

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