A family project for the Hoffmans

Times Staff Writer

Actor Philip Seymour Hoffman and older brother Gordy Hoffman are mugging for a photographer in the courtyard of the ArcLight Theatre in Hollywood. As audiences pour out of the complex on this windy Friday evening in November, the siblings begin walking along with the patrons and the photographer snaps away.

Moving to an egg-shaped sculpture, the Hoffmans lean over the piece and make funny faces. And when the photographer shows them the digital images she just shot, Philip Seymour Hoffman smiles broadly: "That's perfect."

The Hoffmans had just introduced a screening of their movie, "Love Liza," at the AFI Film Festival. Philip Seymour Hoffman stars in the movie, which opened in limited release Monday. Gordy Hoffman, a playwright and theater director, won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the Sundance Film Festival last January for "Love Liza," his first finished screenplay.

The brotherly playfulness isn't in evidence while the two are grabbing a quick bite at the restaurant at the ArcLight before their post-screening question-answer session. The Hoffmans are friendly and talkative, but they're tired. They had been ensconced in a hotel room most of the day talking about "Love Liza." Philip Seymour Hoffman had just flown in the night before from his home in New York City -- Gordy lives in Los Angeles -- and was to return the next day.

During the last decade, Philip Seymour Hoffman has become known as one of the best and most versatile performers on screen and stage. The chameleon-like actor has appeared in all four Paul Thomas Anderson films, most memorably as the gay member of a porn film crew in "Boogie Nights" (1997) and as the blackmailer in the current "Punch-Drunk Love." He gave knockout performances as the rock purist journalist Lester Bangs in Cameron Crowe's "Almost Famous" (2000) and as the wryly perceptive murder victim Freddie Miles in "The Talented Mr. Ripley" (1999) and a flamboyant drag queen in "Flawless" (1999) opposite Robert De Niro.

Last fall, Hoffman was seen as a corrupt tabloid journalist in "Red Dragon," and he's in Spike Lee's new movie, "25th Hour," as a nebbishy high school teacher who falls for one of his students.

"Love Liza," though, is the first film he carries. He gives a warm, funny, pathetic and tragic performance as Wilson Joel, a geeky Web site designer whose young wife, Liza, recently committed suicide. Liza has left Wilson a suicide letter, but he refuses to read it. He assuages his grief by seeking escape, not in pills or liquor but by becoming a gasoline huffer. Kathy Bates plays his mother-in-law, who is coming to terms with her daughter's suicide while dealing with her increasingly out-of-control son-in-law.

Philip Seymour Hoffman says that Wilson refuses to read Liza's letter for one simple reason: "Because I think it's the last time he will talk to her. It's scary to know that there won't be anything after that."

The Hoffman brothers bear little family resemblance. Philip Seymour Hoffman, 35, is shorter, thinner and better looking than his often Pillsbury doughboy-like movie persona. His reddish blond hair is cut relatively short, though his unruly bangs often hang in his eyes. Gordy Hoffman is 37, a head taller than his brother and thin; his black, curly hair is flecked with gray. Both have clear blue eyes and wear glasses.

Growing up in Rochester, N.Y., Philip admits, he was closer to their sister Emily, who is a year younger. "Gordy graduated from high school before I entered high school," says Philip. "We came from a family of four. I have a sister, Jill, who is seven years older. We lived in the same house and we were close in that way, but I have gotten to know Gordy and Jill since then, though we live in different cities."

"I went to college in Kansas," says Gordy. "He went to school at NYU and stayed basically in New York. I was in Chicago basically and Washington, D.C., and I moved to L.A., so we were never in the same city. I was pursuing writing and directing [in the theater] and Phil has stuck to directing and acting. We have separately have gone about our things, but six years ago I wrote 'Love Liza.' That is when we started this project."

Gordy Hoffman didn't write "Love Liza" with his brother in mind. "It was written for anybody, but I showed it to him about 10 days" after writing the first draft, he says. His brother loved the script and wanted to do it. But it took four years to secure financing.

"Phil was a name, but as the years went by, the name increased and his profile got higher," says Gordy Hoffman. "I rewrote the mother role and made it a little bit bigger and they put it in front of Kathy Bates, and she accepted it.... Finally we had a package."

Having Wilson huff gasoline to cope with Liza's death, says Gordy Hoffman, was a way to illustrate how different everybody's path is in dealing with suicide. "It's not some rarefied substance," says Gordy.

"It's just more irresponsible, and the more irresponsible the better," says Philip. "This guy has had this incredibly tragic thing happen a week ago and he just wants to go to the gas station and see how the gasoline smells, you know. He'd rather not read the note or talk to his mother-in-law."

Gordy Hoffman worked on the script in L.A. with director Todd Louiso, who worked with Philip Seymour Hoffman as an actor in "Scent of a Woman" in 1992. "We didn't really work on it together," says Philip Seymour Hoffman. "I was just doing my thing. He would always send the rewrites and I would give little comments to it. I stay out of that stuff. I was happy with the script."

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