The 1996 crime drama marked the beginning of a beautiful partnership.
Before he passed away at the age of 46, Philip Seymour Hoffman starred in 52 feature films. Starring roles, character pieces, chameleon work—he left a legacy nearly unmatched in both quality and quantity. Now, with P.S.H. I Love You, Jonah Koslofsky wafts through the cornucopia of the man’s offerings.
Cooper Hoffman, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s son, will play a substantial part in Paul Thomas Anderson’s next film. Currently titled Soggy Bottom and set for release at the end of this year, we know very little about Anderson’s upcoming work, but it was confirmed last fall that Cooper will be playing “the child actor at the center of the movie.” His presence alone is significant in and of itself. Looking back at the photos from the set, I found a lump forming in my throat.
Cooper is seventeen now – he was ten when his father died. His sisters Tallulah and Willa were seven and five. Paul Thomas Anderson wasn’t just a guy their dad worked with, he was a family friend. Hoffman collaborated with Anderson more often than any other filmmaker in his career: the pair made five movies together across seventeen years. Off-screen, Phil would tell stories about his buddy Paul, and the time he was so in love that he tackled Hoffman on the streets of the West Village. It was a rich, meaningful friendship that came before whatever either was working on. Did Cooper feel the weight of his father’s legacy on the set of Soggy Bottom? Did the familiarity of being around Anderson make things easier?
“It’s always good to meet a new friend,” Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) tells John (John C. Reilly) early in Hard Eight; following the advice written into his first film, Anderson and Hoffman met on set in January, 1995. It all started here. Originally titled Sydney after its lead character, P.T.A. made the movie in his mid-twenties, which is even more impressive considering his debut centers on a man defined by his old age. Well, his old age, and his mistakes.
We come to understand that Sydney is a living loose end, a vessel for his own regret, a man incapable of resolving the conflicts he’s created. Hard Eight opens with the seasoned hustler offering to teach the wayward John his ways, but by the middle, he’s imparted all he knows. There’s not much left for Sydney to do, even less he can actually make right. So he gambles. He wanders into whatever Nevada casino he pleases and on this night, he runs into an unnamed “young craps player” (Hoffman).
“C’mon old timer, you gonna join us here, my friend? C’mon! I don’t wait for old people, I don’t wait for old people.” His shirt is unbuttoned, his mullet dominates the table – Philip Seymour Hoffman’s forehead has never loomed larger. And he’s having a great night. Surrounded by on-lookers, Hoffman’s so immediately arrogant that his slightly suh-thern drawl cuts through anyone else in the frame. We get it: this asshole thinks he knows how the world works. Sydney knows better.
“Ok, I’m going to light a cigarette now, old timer. You see the thing is, I like you. I’m going to let you have this time to place your bet, before I finish lighting this cigarette. And when I finish lighting I’m just gonna roll, fuck you!” Hoffman puts the maximum amount energy into these lines, effortlessly and endlessly taunting Sydney, cigarette dangling out of his mouth. “Jesus Christ, why don’t you have some fun, fun!” he squawks – but Sydney gives him nothing back. Both characters are seen from low angle close-ups, as if you’re looking up at them from the craps table – Philip Baker Hall faces him with a blank, 1000-yard-stare. “I’m gonna light the cigarette old timer, what are you gonna do?”
Without blinking, Sydney makes a two thousand dollar bet on the young craps player rolling a hard eight – essentially daring him to back up that confidence he’s flaunting. Hoffman’s face betrays some fear for just a split second, then he turns to finally light that damn cigarette. “Oh man, you play that game, don’t you? Oh, shit! You’re big time! You are big time!” The character seems to recognize that his odds of actually rolling a four on both die are extremely low, and he actually doesn’t have much to lose because of Sydney’s bet. But if he can’t roll that hard eight, he won’t seem like such hot shit.
Hoffman collaborated with Anderson more often than any other filmmaker in his career: the pair made five movies together across seventeen years.
“Me and you, big time. You can buy yourself another suit with this roll.” He ends up throwing an easy eight – Hoffman lets out a passionate “fuck!” before pulling his head out from the table and letting out a more nonchalant “fuck,” as if to assure his onlookers that he’s not fazed. Neither man leaves the interaction happy, but Sydney’s proved his point, even if he’s lost a significant chunk of change (money he’ll really need before the end of the night). According to the older Philip, P.S.H. improvised most of his lines in the scene – all of the shit talk came from Hoffman simply running with the situation, doing everything he could to goad the older actor.
The sequence doesn’t have much of an impact on the spare plot of Hard Eight, but it’s a wonderful illustration of both P.T.A. and P.S.H.’s strengths. Anderson’s brilliance comes from his ability to organically construct scenes that slyly let us into the intricate psychologies of his characters. Sydney killed people and alienated his children far before Hard Eight begins. While he has left that life and the East Coast behind, he’s still a deeply self-destructive individual. This scene doesn’t tell us about Syd – it shows us that he remains the type of person who’ll spend two thousand dollars to vaguely humiliate someone who insulted him.
In other words, only Philip Seymour Hoffman’s vast immaturity exposes Sydney’s own lingering immaturity. According to Anderson, “When I wrote this [scene], I wrote it with Phil in mind. It’s kind of in the tradition of characters he’s done, this sort-of loudmouth, obnoxious asshole […] but, I didn’t feel bad about it because, I thought, we’ll make it the best version.” Yes, Hoffman played similarly childish characters in his brief, early roles, but this performance is much more memorable because he’s able to make such economic use of his screen-time.
The “young craps player” may not have a name, but we can easily trace his thought process and emotional state through the scene. Whether he’s bobbing his head or shoving his matchbook in Sydney’s face, Hoffman uses his whole body to express his character’s arrogance. Craps is also a pretty complex game, so it’s on these actors to convey what’s happening even if the audience doesn’t necessarily know what each roll means. Hoffman is clearly having a ton of fun and enjoying the opportunity to riff, but he doesn’t overplay any beat – his attempts to antagonize Sydney are annoying without becoming unrealistic. P.S.H. knows this isn’t his movie: he drops in, helps us understand Sydney, and exits the picture. At the very least, you have to admire the efficiency.
As with most debuts, Hard Eight suffers from some sloppiness – Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson) come off a bit underwritten, especially next to Sydney and John. But if there’s one scene that telegraphs the greatness Anderson would achieve, it’s this one with Hoffman. Sure, it’s always good to meet a new friend, but there aren’t many friendships that bring out the best in both parties like the one that began on the set of Hard Eight.