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?
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…)
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.
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…
The list goes on. Does anyone play anger, loathing, distress, or emotional shutdown better?
* Answer: A big, red, rock eater.
p.s. I wrote a poem once with at least the idea of a Philip Seymour Hoffman portrayal somewhere in mind:
The large man wakes alone in an apartment.
Fills whistling kettle, lights gas.
Face squashed to carpet, he squints under
Mrs. Sinclair’s sofa. ‘Here kitty kitty kitty…’
Kitty toys with his dressing-gown cord
while the man sips black coffee,
stares out through the kitchenette window
onto a snow-stacked yard.
Thick black branches stab white sky.
A cigarette burns to ash in a saucer.
The man stares out at the snow as a cigarette
turns to ash in a saucer by his pink
freckled elbow. Thin sunlight ekes
through the kitchenette window,
catches the serrated edge
of Mrs. Sinclair’s grapefruit knife.
The large man grimaces. Not time yet. Not
even for his first scotch-and-water.