Question: What is big and red and eats rocks?*

I think it was on my first day at primary school that someone told me this joke – which, looking now, I see must come from Bennett Cerf’s 1960 Book of Riddles. I immediately identified with the image – as I still do today. In my mind, aged four, I thought uh oh – could it be me?

Wolf Gang
Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote. Photo by Wolf Gang.

As an adult, I’ve pored over  the work of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. The subtle mess he brought to his roles I find extraordinarily moving. It’s like seeing ourselves writ large. The way he played humans. Characters who were always flawed but also understandable, even lovable. In whatever mess or difficulty. (And, yes, I felt a physical kinship too – if not me, my father or brother could so easily be played by this actor…)

Vain or furious

Hoffman won his Oscar for Capote. Understandably. But he always shone – however downtrodden or disheartened his part. However thwarted or flawed. Vain or furious. Just from the fact he looked so closely. I loved his portrayal of an emotionally shut down son and brother in The Savages, for instance – which I watched again this summer. (One afternoon, curtains drawn…)

The opposite of romantic: as Jon Savage.

Stilted, coping, rigid with frustration and disappointment, at one point Hoffman’s character, Jon Savage, puts his neck out playing squash. He then appears suspended by a brace from a doorway in his drab, brown-walled home. The opposite of the Hollywood hunk – onto whom we project wildly.

Human frailty

Truth is, as humans, we are all too often misfits. A bundle of appetite and good intentions. Hot with disappointment. Gullets weighed down with rocks of shame. Hoffman explored human frailty from every angle: overbearing and controlling, as The Master; malevolent, dogged and privileged as Freddie in The Talented Mr Ripley – adapted of course from the priceless Patricia Highsmith. (Remember that scene where he calls Matt Damon’s Tom on ‘peeping’? It’s like nothing else I’ve seen: ‘Tommy, how’s the peeping? Tommy, how’s the peeping? Tommy Tommy Tommy Tommy Tommy.’) Or falling apart at the seams, in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead

riddle1The list goes on. Does anyone play anger, loathing, distress, or emotional shutdown better?


* Answer: A big, red, rock eater.