Connie: I know...
Connie: I knew you'd be a good swimmer. When we talked about summer, l knew you'd be good at it.
Jack: Yeah...I am for you.
Connie: I knew you'd be good.
Jack: I am for you.
(Connie and Jack, Jack Goes Boating, Philip Seymour Hoffman 2010)
If there was ever an actor who was the embodiment of courage, it must be Philip Seymour Hoffman. There are people who can act. There are those who are nice and loveable. There are those who cross their boundaries for every single task that comes up ahead of them, be it for adrenaline or for any other reason in the world. But Hoffman...Hoffman is all of this, and so much more. For every single role he does, he doesn't (just) change physically (ironically, his biggest 'official' recognition he won for one extreme of pure physical disappearance – stealing up that Oscar for the role of Truman Capote in Bennett Miller’s film, which will probably remain memorized in my thoughts as a living oil on canvass, an amazing painting, a lifeless masterpiece...and he was at the same time most laughed at for the other – the role of the transvestite Rusty in ‘Flawless’; yet he is mostly always the same, with the same hair and the same look and the same recognizable invisibility); he strips naked, completely, down to the bone. To the heart. To the soul. He fights battles with every single one of known emotions, conditions and states of mind, and he wins every time, whether it is cruelty (‘Mission:Impossible III’, ‘The Red Dragon’), subtle evilness (‘Cold Mountain’), confusion (‘State and Main’), despair and humiliation (‘The 25th Hour’), coolness (‘Almost Famous’), sadness (‘Love, Liza’), addiction (‘Owning Mahowny’)...just literally anything. There is simply nothing he cannot do, and his ability to let go is always the most captivating detail in all of his movies, no matter who he was directed by, or what his role is.
But it is not (only) his versatility that makes Hoffman so unique – it is his fearlessness in showing fragility that I love so much. In a fiction world of cinema where men are courageous avengers, fearless defenders, flaming lovers and calculating gamblers (or otherwise exist mainly in comedies, as losers and ‘weaklings’ who are to be laughed at, or miraculously transformed into ‘real men’ by the end of the movie), often stripped bare of all fear, fragility and gentleness (or, if they do exist, they are only catalyst for courageous deeds – with the fear of loss transforming an average father or husband into a fearless fighter; not to mention one who looks like Christian Bale or Tom Cruise, just waiting to show off his muscles under the ‘ready for office’ everyday outfit), Hoffman embodies a gorgeously humane precedent, without ever crossing over the boundary of being laughable or tacky. Even when Todd Solondz turns him into the ‘creepy guy next door’, or when P.T. Anderson strips him down and humiliates him as the quiet, gentle and shy Scotty (whose existence we barely notice, and who is reduced to one ‘marking of time’, one historical symbol), there is still so much authentic warmth to him, it is sometimes difficult to watch, but always touching on so many levels. And even if it sometimes seems that he is the embodiment of loser(s), it is almost never so: for as much as I am not fond of Jacob (Elinsky) as he whines about his privileged life to Monty to hide the fact that he doesn’t have a clue about life’s difficulties, and all the literature he teaches has taught him nothing about the real-world dialogue, the look in his eyes after an unexpected (and forbidden!) kiss shows him off not as the predator, but as a scared man in search of some freedom, which he can’t find because he’s trapped in his own world of ‘culture’; and even if his Wilson – after the loss of Liza – may seem at first as someone who’s given up on himself, understanding his reasons will only make him more humane in any attentive observer’s eye: for what can be more humane, more sad and more worthy of my understanding, than the grief caused by the loss of one’s life embodied in love? These characters are ‘shameful’ only if sorrow is shameful; only if being weak is in some way unnatural, and learning to deal with our emotions is something easy, irrelevant and so futile, that we shouldn’t ever dare to bring it out to the open, in front of others. And maybe this is indeed so in Hollywood dreamland – but in real life, fragility is not something to hide, but a proof that our hearts are indeed more than a part of the perfect body machinery, a gentle beauty in itself. And Hoffman radiates that beauty with every move, and every word.
‘Jack Goes Boating’ could be the gentlest, most stripped down work of Hoffman’s so far. For Jack is not only his character to play with, but – with the movie being Hoffman’s directorial debut – the decision of how much of his inner world to show was also left up to Hoffman himself. In the end, Jack is a man so gentle, it is almost unbearable. And while he is often uncomfortable with himself and with others - clearing his throat obsessively when feeling threatened or overexposed in any way – the tiny glimpses of courage he shows (embodied so poetically in the swimming lessons, which were funny and sad at the same time) come off as feats worthy of praise much greater than the acts we award and praise in everyday life. And they are. For no physical challenges, no successes in sports and medals won can ever compare with the courage of saying ‘I love you’; and no Oscar shine for the greatest performance can ever top the amount of soul given in the act of the first kiss. Hoffman, as an Oscar winner, knows this; judging by this role, he knows it well. And he makes Jack so kind to the world, you would think the world will crush him with all its sorrow. But it doesn’t, for he wiped away his tears – in front of us, the observers, reminding us there is no shame in demonstrating weakness, even if it makes both his and our cheeks blush – and has learned how to cook, and how to swim. And even how to row a boat. And how to love...well, that he has known all along...