Arts, Column

COLUMN: Philip Seymour Hoffman: A Night At The Movies

A few days after my 12th birthday, I saw my first R-rated movie in theaters. I remember peering sheepishly over the ticket counter-which was then only a little lower than my eye level-as my mother asked for two adult, two children’s tickets for Capote. In the moment, it felt as if I were getting let in on a secret, brushing against the great mystery of adulthood, if only for a couple hours.

Up to that night, I had only known film as child’s fare, so stepping into that small projector room in Clifton, N.J., I was aghast to see an auditorium full of adults. Further scanning the dimly lit room, with sense of pure wonder, I observed many of these filmgoers could even be grandparents. I could only vaguely put thought to my feeling of strangeness, but in some way, I knew this movie was “more.” This notion of “more-ness,” however, was more than just a thought-it was a face.

Philip Seymour Hoffman had recently won the Oscar for Best Actor for his work in Capote, and while I didn’t quite understand the nature of this accomplishment, I knew it to be the reason my brother and I were taken to the film. I paid special attention to Hoffman’s character of Truman Capote that night, since the plot of the film was well over my head.

I took note of Hoffman’s unusual mannerisms in the film and the general flamboyance of the character, which at the time made little sense to me. I remember growing a little peevish by the end of the two-hour run, asking my mom why Capote and his friend Nelle Harper Lee (Catherine Keener) didn’t get together at the close of the film.

“They were just friends,” my mom explained. With that, I knew this was a very different kind of story. It wasn’t satisfying in the way of a Star Wars or Indiana Jones movie. The plot didn’t tie together so cleanly, and there was no big action sequence to resolve the conflict. The guy didn’t get the girl. (In this case, he wasn’t even interested in the girl.) For the purposes of my 12-year old mind, Capote wasn’t the male protagonist I knew-I loved it.

Hoffman’s Capote offered a completely new perspective of masculinity-he was a character who simply didn’t show up in movies for my age group. His motivation was decidedly more complex than that of Han Solo, and his problems more real. For me, a solid plot never required anything more than a giant ball of metal floating in space and a girl who to be impressed when that ball gets blown up.

I don’t mean to rag too much on the Star War franchise-on some level, sexual desire and a love of violence are the two tools most readily available in a young mind for understanding a complex plot. In Capote, however, there was a whole new register of tools for understanding introduced to me: intellectual desire, curiosity, morbid fascination. The most formidable weapons in the film were the notebook and human eye. The film follows the American writer as he traces the tracks of a murderer, and it paints a world in which observation is far more important than killing.

Hoffman’s performance in the film was the beginning of much of what I’ve come to admire in acting, and on the end of the screen, people. Capote wasn’t wholly an admirable character, and indeed, the film calls into question many of his motives for writing about the murder case, but he was heroic in a very human way. It wasn’t quite the “manly” virtue of Han Salo-Capote wasn’t rugged, dirty, or crude, and his persona wasn’t built around his ability to accomplish feats of derring do. He was at once very real as a human and believable in doing the extraordinary. For most actors, this simply is not to be accomplished.

Hoffman died on Sunday at the age of 46, leaving behind him three children, all younger than I was when I first saw Capote. I wonder how they’ll remember their father-probably as far more than I do. They’ll recall more than just the actor. His youngest, age five, might someday discover her father not all too differently than I did.

As we drove home from the theater that night, my mom mentioned how she felt uncomfortable asking for two children’s tickets to an R-rated film. I kept quiet in the back seat, smiling as I thought of the man I just met.

February 5, 2014