Tru Calling

Oscar buzz has already begun for Philip Seymour Hoffman, who brilliantly embodies the writer of 'In Cold Blood'

October 23, 2005|By MICHAEL SRAGOW | MICHAEL SRAGOW,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN HAS always had something extra behind the eyeballs: a glint of high or lowdown wit, a surfeit of mischief or creative energy. A prize supporting actor for more than a decade, he's played everything from a droll oversize preppie with an annoying sense of truth, in The Talented Mr. Ripley, to a sleazy tabloid reporter who gets a flaming sendoff from a serial killer, in the Hannibal Lecter thriller, Red Dragon.

In three dozen films, playing big men who move with misguided confidence or sometimes genuine grace, Hoffman had become an heir to the great Hollywood character actors -- the kind that audiences loved seeing even if they couldn't instantaneously recall the performers' names. His credits include revered cult films like Boogie Nights and Magnolia and hit comedies like Along Came Polly, in which he turns a woefully lumpy man playing hoops into (take your pick) a baggy-pants tour-de-force or the visual definition of an actor's lack of vanity.

So it's a happy irony that Hoffman, now 38, may win the Oscar for best actor this year by transforming himself physically and aurally in the title role of Capote (which opens Friday in Baltimore).

Hoffman has been acting ever since a neck injury forced him to quit high school wrestling. He drew on all his intuition and experience to play Truman Capote from 1959, when the writer began researching the real-life murder behind his "non-fiction novel," In Cold Blood, to 1965, when he finished it. Hoffman has somehow managed to make his broad, 5-foot-10-inch physique seem as slight and svelte as Capote's 5 feet, 3 inches. With the help of thick late-'50s glass frames, he's given his face default expressions that oscillate between stripped-bare sensitivity and gleeful hyper-awareness.

As Capote, Hoffman's sensory alertness is palpable. His high-pitched, rarefied, oddly tickling voice seems like the only sound that could emanate from his cherub-from-outer-space visage and whistle-puckered lips.

Some baby-boomers may remember Capote mostly from his falling-down drunk days on the talk-show circuit. But this movie has become part of a Capote revival: a never-published early novella, Summer Crossing, came out this month. And another Capote-based film, Have You Heard, will open in theaters next fall, featuring Toby Jones as the writer and an ensemble including Sandra Bullock and the new James Bond, Daniel Craig.

In his prime, Capote had the power to impress even creative macho-men like John Huston (for whom he wrote Beat the Devil) with his resilience and independence, and his toughness. "He had pit bulldog in him," Huston marveled.

Hoffman captures that potency when Capote, in Capote, enters a room with a pelvic thrust to his walk and an upturned chin. And the actor shares his subject's qualities of stubbornness and strength.

"I can't analyze my work that closely," Hoffman says over the phone from Los Angeles, where he's busy playing the bad guy to Tom Cruise's gung-ho hero in Mission: Impossible 3. "I don't know why directors sign me for a role ever."

But it's clear that when directors select Hoffman for a part, they know they're hiring a full-service collaborator. For example, his best-loved role to date is probably Lester Bangs, the witty, uncompromising rock critic who died 18 years before Hoffman played him in writer-director Cameron Crowe's autobiographical movie, Almost Famous (2000). In the movie, as in real life, Bangs is the kind of bred-in-the-bone iconoclast who proclaims the importance of not being stylish. Crowe hooked on to Hoffman because the filmmaker sensed that the actor could embody Bangs' maverick disdain for conventional success.

In Capote, Hoffman plays a paragon of high-society cool: the anti-Lester Bangs. Capote's portrait in Life magazine made him a pop icon before he published any book. (The high point of his life was throwing the party of the century at the Plaza Hotel.) This master of postwar fiction -- Norman Mailer once called Capote the "most perfect" craftsman of his generation -- loses his soul in the process of writing In Cold Blood, his magnum opus about Middle American crime and punishment.

To Hoffman, "There's a boldness to both Bangs and Capote in the way they speak their minds. Bangs was saying if you want to be a writer, if you want to be a critic, you have to be fearless and not worry about what people think about you. Capote was fearless and wrote what he wanted to write but he cared deeply about what people thought about him. And that was his big character flaw."

A spiritual odyssey

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