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February 2014 Archives

February 5, 2014

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.

February 28, 2014

A Miscellany for the end of February

Considering the abominable weather this winter, it seems that millions of people will be stuck in their homes this coming Sunday night watching the Academy Awards broadcast (provided, of course, they still have power then). Little has changed in my predictions since I posted them a few weeks ago: Cate Blanchett is a shoo-in for Best Actress, likewise Alfonso Cuaron for Best Director and Jared Leto for Best Supporting Actor. Matthew McConaughey is the likely Best Actor winner, though Leonardo DiCaprio or Chiwetel Ejiofor might still squeak past him. Best Supporting Actress is a two-woman race between Lupita Nyong'o and Jennifer Lawrence; I'm guessing Nyong'o will win, because her role was so harrowing and also because Lawrence won Best Actress last year. Best Picture, again, boils down to either Gravity or 12 Years a Slave, though American Hustle--the nominee that gave audiences the most pure enjoyment--can't be counted out. In two days, all will be history.

Speaking of history, the last few weeks have seen the passing of stars who will be sorely missed. Shirley Temple went from being the most important child star in history to a woman who served her country's diplomatic mission with skill and dignity. My colleague Kathi Wolfe has an excellent eulogy to Temple in the March Scene4; I cannot add to it in any way. Sid Caesar was one of the brightest comic lights of early television; it was his misfortune to see his star dim while so many of his "Your Show of Shows" colleagues--Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Woody Allen--soared past him. "Your Show of Shows" was a little before my time; I will remember Caesar best for his supporting performances in such movies as Brooks' "Silent Movie." The scene with Caesar in the hospital, transformed into a blinking, jerking puppet when Marty Feldman and Dom DeLuise start playing Pong with his EKG machine, is testimony to Caesar's enormous gifts as a comic mime.

The two performers whose passing means the most to me personally are Ralph Waite and Harold Ramis. Waite was one of the greatest TV dads ever; as John Walton Sr. on "The Waltons," he projected a combination of strength and gentleness as potent and moving as any performer in TV history. John Walton and his family could be said to be the ideal audience for Shirley Temple; faced with adversity in the middle of the Depression, they heard the curly-haired girl's message of joy and hope, and felt it in their own lives.

Just as surely, Harold Ramis was a true thespian descendant of Sid Caesar. Caesar pioneered the sort of sketch comedy at which Ramis excelled, first as a member of the Second City troupe and then as a co-creator of "SCTV," for my money the best comedy sketch show ever televised. From "SCTV" Ramis went on to become a memorable comic writer and performer in such movies as "Ghostbusters" and "Stripes." However, it was as the writer-director of "Groundhog Day" that he made his greatest contribution. From the absurd, surrealistic notion of a man (played magnificently by Bill Murray) living the same day over and over for years, Ramis drove home this message: to achieve true happiness, all of us have to look within ourselves, and explore what we are made of. That was a message Shirley Temple and the Walton family could endorse, and it was as fine a valedictory message as anyone could hope to leave for posterity.

About February 2014

This page contains all entries posted to MDM in February 2014. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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