Mr. Hoffman and Mr. Schell
Philip Seymour Hoffman served a long apprenticeship as a journeyman actor before he became a star. Only a week ago, it was a delightful surprise to play with the TV remote and happen on Hoffman in his "Law and Order" guest shot playing a punk on trial for rape, or his brief role as a befuddled young policeman in the Paul Newman film "Nobody's Fool."
From now on, it will just be unspeakably sad.
Much has been written in the past few days of Hoffman's unexpected and horrible death, an almost exact replay of Lenny Bruce's, lying on his bathroom floor with a needle in his arm. It is nearly impossible to wrap our minds around the loss of this uniquely powerful and protean actor, but of course that hasn't stopped writers all over the world from trying to do so. Eugene Robinson, a columnist for the Washington Post, stated the simple, bald truth of the matter. "Why would a man held in such high esteem, a man with so much going for him and so much to live for, risk it all by buying illegal drugs from a criminal on the street and then injecting them into his veins?" Robinson wrote. "For the same reason any addict uses drugs: to get high."
Robinson and others have used Hoffman's death to advocate the position that addiction should be treated as a disease, not a crime, and that better treatment of addiction would prevent tragedies such as Hoffman's. I agree wholeheartedly. But it is the loss of the actor, not U.S, drug enforcement policy, that has me reeling at this moment. This was Philip Seymour Hoffman, the actor who looked like a high-school athlete gone to seed but who transformed himself into an eerily perfect doppelganger for Truman Capote. To look at Hoffman's IMDB listing is to be astonished at both the quantity and quality of his work in the past 15 years, in such disparate films as "The Master," "Doubt," "Boogie Nights," "The Big Lebowski," ":Moneyball," "Charlie Wilson's War": and the "Hunger Games" franchise. IMDB lists 63 credits for Hoffman in 23 years, with five films still to be released. The only comparison I can think of is Rainer Werner Fassbinder--equally brilliant, equally driven and hyperactive, with an equally sad and abrupt end. I also think of John Belushi, River Phoenix, Heath Ledger...but Hoffman's loss hurts even more. I can't imagine anyone ever thought that Hoffman wasn't here for the long haul, and that we wouldn't eventually see him play King Lear.
Of all of Hoffman's films, the one that keeps going through my head is "Synecdoche, New York," the 2008 film written and directed by Charlie Kaufman. In "Synecdoche, New York," Hoffman plays a theater director who, having won a genius grant, uses it to build an entire city in which to stage a play based on his own life. Over decades the director adds to his gigantic set, changing it constantly to fit the vagaries of his life story. At the end, he is old and decrepit, and the rat-infested city-set is crumbling around him. No longer able to direct, he needs a director to whisper through his hearing aids when to walk outside, when to stand up and sit down. He tells his nurse, "I've finally figured it out--how to direct the play of my life." At that moment, the unseen director says, "DIE."
The grief over Hoffman's death has been so great that most people have forgotten the loss of another great but more fortunate actor whose passing occurred just a day or two before Hoffman's. Maximilian Schell astonished everyone back in 1961 in "Judgment at Nuremberg," in his commanding performance as a young defense attorney, deftly stealing the picture from the likes of Spencer Tracy, Marlene Dietrich and Burt Lancaster. "Judgment at Nuremberg" was the high point of Schell's film career, but he continued to give excellent and high-profile performances in numerous films. My favorite performance of his later years was as the loopy chef Larry London in "The Freshman," staring down Matthew Broderick and Frank Whaley as he intones, "Zey said zere vould be vun boy. Zere are two!" It was a role removed as far as possible from "Judgment at Nuremberg," and it serves to illustrate the wide-ranging talent of Maximilian Schell.
,One more sad thought: comparing Philip Seymour Hoffman and Maximilian Schell, I can't help but think of two of Schell's co-stars in "Judgment at Nuremberg:" Montgomery Clift and Judy Garland.