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.
For as much as I appreciate their respective work on Hard Eight, it’s safe to say that Boogie Nights was a massive step forward for both Paul Thomas Anderson and Philip Seymour Hoffman. On his first feature, you can still feel P.T.A. working out the basics of his filmmaking, squeezing as much meaning as he could out of basic shot-reverse-shot conversations and a cast of actors you can count on one hand. But from the opening frame of Boogie Nights, the training wheels are off, traded in for a pair of roller-skates followed by a Steadicam. Desire radiates from every neon-drenched club-goer – you can sense Anderson’s own hunger for recognition and success, too.
“It is my dream, it is my goal, it is my idea, to make a film that the story just sucks them in,” says Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), pornographic filmmaker extraordinaire, “and when they spurt out that joy juice, they just gotta sit in it. They can’t move until they find out how the story ends.” It’s 1977 and Jack’s business is booming – especially after he discovers the “unusually gifted” Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) washing dishes in the back of his San Fernando nightclub of choice. Eddie won’t be Eddie for long: under Jack’s wing, he leaves his given name behind to become “Dirk Diggler,” the biggest porn star of his age.
Boogie Nights, like Jack’s ideal cinema, is trying to accomplish two things at once. This is the ballad of Dirk Diggler, the tale of his rise and fall into his own ego and fantasy. There’s even a scene in which Dirk jumps into a swimming pool, a sequence we’ve come to expect from our coming-of-age movies. But Anderson also wants to weave a whole world around his wayward, well-endowed protagonist, an Altman-esque ensemble exercise packed to the brim with people. The side stories of William H. Macy’s depressed “Little Bill” and Don Cheadle’s stereo-selling cowboy are given ample room to breathe and develop – Dirk is hardly the most engaging character in his own movie.
Meet Scotty (Hoffman). His hair is long enough to brush against his shoulders, and his tank-top is a size too small; looking around, Scotty spots Dirk lounging by the pool, and a dumbfound smile grows on Hoffman’s face. Scotty’s smitten. The sound guy in Jack’s movies, P.S.H. immediately establishes his character’s desires, and simultaneously, the awkward energy he exudes by repressing himself. During his first conversation with Dirk, Hoffman undercuts every line with a motion – a tug of his shirt, a bob of his head, a lick of his lips – telegraphing how uncool Scotty thinks he’s sounding. Like his work on Hard Eight, this is precise and efficient acting.
But Hoffman had never played someone like Scotty before – though he would again. His two biggest movies up to this point were Scent of a Woman (in which he played a rich scumbag) and Twister (in which he played a proto-Jack Black); Boogie Nights, released in fall 1997, was neither pointless awards bait nor summer blockbuster. On their first collaboration, Anderson justified casting Hoffman to type by promising to make it “the best version [of an asshole Hoffman had played before].” Barely two years later, P.T.A. handed his friend a role as far from that type as possible, meaning a much wider audience could now appreciate what Anderson glimpsed when he watched Scent of a Woman.
Hoffman would most immediately return to this milieu with his exploration of repression in Todd Solondz’s Happiness, and he’d play another late-nineties conception of a queer character in Joel Schumacher’s Flawless. Why don’t either come close to his performance in Boogie Nights? I think, in part, because a little Scotty goes a long way. P.S.H. is able to establish Scotty’s attraction to Dirk almost instantly, so the movie can provide a payoff for this thread almost as fast.
“Hey! Dirk! Fucking New Year’s, right?” Suddenly, the nineteen-eighties are bearing down on our makeshift family of adult film stars. Decked out in a bright red leather jacket to match his brand new, bright red sports car, Scotty can’t even hold his friend’s attention long enough to show off the vehicle he bought to impress him. He plants a sudden, desperate kiss on Dirk, and gets a shove in return – Scotty stammers out an “I’m sorry” before he’s even regained his balance. “You look at me sometimes – I want to know if you like me.”
The rest of their interaction is a chaotic collision of Scotty trying to save face while being forced to confront the reality that his feelings are unrequited. But even as he claims he’s “really wasted,” Hoffman chokes out his lines in a manner that makes clear he’s holding back tears. Anderson’s camera cuts only once in the scene, instead moving to mimic Dirk’s perspective as the attitude of their conversation changes. Hoffman’s face is always in frame, so you can see him cycling through Scotty’s different emotions and responses in real-time, flickering between faux-casual and anxiously appealing to the object of his affections. He ends in a clear, raw place: Dirk goes back into the party while Scotty gets in his fancy car, crying and cursing himself, over and over.
Scotty appears sporadically throughout the rest of Boogie Nights, remaining friends with Dirk and company (he’s the only voice of reason before their run-in with a coke head who loves “Jessie’s Girl”). While there’s an element of the queer tragedy trope in his arc being built around punishing rejection, it’s worth pointing out that pretty much every character in the movie goes through something similar.
It’s one thing to nail a single scene, but it’s quite another to fully embody someone’s psychology with just a few minutes of screentime.
Scotty’s storyline foreshadows what’s to come for Dirk and the rest of their chosen family – and he too is eventually ok. But Scotty also illustrates that for as liberated and open as Jack seeks to make his collection of co-stars and crew, it’s not exactly paradise. Our heroic pornographers may have constructed an alternative to the repressing structures of their time, but they’ve also failed to make their own feel comfortable.
To be clear, the film isn’t cynically using Scotty to make a point, it’s simply representing him. Compared to the ill-conceived and unexplored mess of identities that was “Rusty” in Flawless, it’s safe to say the actor and auteur did something right. Everyone in Boogie Nights comes across as both sympathetic and hilarious (I mean, his name is “Dirk Diggler”), with a few exceptions. Hoffman’s performance stops the viewer from gaining that ironic distance from Scotty: he wants what seems utterly impossible, but he wants it with honesty and longing we can all appreciate.
I wasn’t around in 1997, so I can’t tell you firsthand that this was the moment cinephiles embraced Philip Seymour Hoffman. It was certainly the time they embraced Paul Thomas Anderson, with Boogie Nights scoring a trio of Oscar nominations and a healthy box office return. P.S.H. is a standout in a movie chock-full of standouts – it’s one thing to nail a single scene, but its quite another to fully embody someone’s psychology with just a few minutes of screentime. His first brilliant performance remains one of his best.