One of a rare hybrid breed that might be termed Star Character Actors, Philip Seymour Hoffman has, in the space of just a few years, amassed an adventurous, eclectic corpus distinguished by evident esteem for auteurs and a heartening lack of vanity. Lending ballast to every film he touches, Hoffman usually manages to steal a scene or two for himself as well. He beamed perma-smiling sycophancy as the toady in the Coen brothers' The Big Lebowski (1998), epitomized jet-set entitlement as a smug brat in Anthony Minghella's The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), and administered a sorely needed shot of adrenalin (and bullshit detection) to Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous (2000) each time his iconic Lester Bangs blustered onto the screen. At regular intervals, Hoffman will also add a movement to his ever evolving symphony of Sad-Sack Variations: the porno crewman who makes an unrequited lunge at Dirk Diggler in Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights (1997); the mouth-breathing phone stalker in Todd Solondz's Happiness (1998); the puppyish, put-upon screenwriter in David Mamet's State and Main (2000).
Mamet's ensemble comedy marked Hoffman's debut as a romantic lead, but Love Liza unveils his first full-fledged celluloid star turn, as Wilson, a website designer devastated by his wife's suicide and seemingly hell-bent on auto-destruction.
"I'm in every frame of the movie, and part of me hated that because it's so emotionally exhausting, and part of me loved it and misses it," the 35-year-old Hoffman says. "You're really excavating something in a way you can't do in a supporting part."
Love Liza closes out a seasonal binge of Hoffmania, ranging from the Hannibal Lecter cash-in Red Dragon to Spike Lee's Sept. 11 digestion 25th Hour to, most memorably, Anderson's sublimely loopy confection Punch-Drunk Love, featuring the four-time PTA conspirator as a bellowing con man. Meanwhile, he has finished shooting Minghella's all-star adaptation of Charles Frazier's bestseller Cold Mountain and recently directed the play Our Lady of 121st Street at New York's Center Stage. Love Liza, however, is the project closest to his heart: six years in development and a scant 24 days in the filming, the tragicomic character study is directed by Hoffman's dear friend Todd Louiso, best known as the sweet, timorous record-store clerk in High Fidelity, and penned by his older brother, Gordy Hoffman, who won the screenwriting prize at Sundance last January. (It was 12-year-old Gordy who gave Philip his first role, as a prison guard in the Super-8 suspense yarn The Last Escape.)
Operatically crazed with grief and survivor's guilt, Love Liza's Wilson embodies a primal masculine hysteria identifiable with maverick American cinema of the 1970s: John Cassavetes's Husbands or any number of Jack Nicholson vehicles.
"There's several moments in the film where you've got to ask yourself, 'Well, why did he just do that?!' The movie isn't going to explain it, but there is a metaphor under it all about the regression to childhood," says Hoffman, whose character begins huffing gas compulsively and, by accidental extension, cultivating an interest in model-airplane conventions, all the while refusing to open Liza's suicide note. "Dealing with the present is too difficult, so playing with the planes and getting high—and it's such an adolescent way to get high—is all about getting back to before any of this happened. And it also keeps you running down a path of self-flagellation toward some kind of absolution."
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In Anderson's own account of illness, grief and regret, the epic Magnolia (1999), Hoffman delivered one of his most indelible performances as the empathic nurse who eases the passing of Jason Robards' agonized patriarch as would a guardian angel.
"That's the guy's life, and that's his job, and my point was that doesn't make it any easier," Hoffman says. "He has a strong understanding of the importance of helping someone die, even though he knows that every time he goes through it, it's going to be painful."
The roots of Magnolia originated in the death of Anderson's father from lung cancer. "On that set, we were all grieving with Paul," he recalls. "On Love Liza, I felt a similar kind of powerful personal connection to the material just because I was with my brother and one of my best friends.
"You know what, as jobs go, this one's pretty great," Hoffman continues. "You're paid well, you travel, you get to work with people you love. That said, the only downside is that you spend a lot of time expressing things that most people spend a lot of time hiding."