Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Philip Seymour Hoffman

The will to walk onstage

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About a year ago, I picked up a copy of the book Actors at Work, which consists of interviews with fourteen stage and screen professionals by the casting director Rosemarie Tichler and the playwright Barry Jay Kaplan. It’s an engaging, informative read, openly modeled on the legendary interviews on craft conducted by The Paris Review, and its subjects include the likes of Meryl Streep, John Lithgow, and Patti LuPone. By accident, however, it ends with chapters devoted to two actors whose legacies have been profoundly changed in the intervening decade. One is Kevin Spacey, whose career seems effectively over in the aftermath of revelations about his sexual misconduct; the other is the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose partner, Mimi O’Donnell, provides an account of their life together in an autobiographical essay that appeared last week in Vogue. Spacey and Hoffman never appeared onstage or onscreen together, and they don’t seem to have spoken of each other publicly while both were alive, but they were linked in the minds of many fans. In his entry on Hoffman in The Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson even wrote: “Meanwhile, search him out, as you might Kevin Spacey. There is the same very dangerous talent at work—astounding, yet so pronounced it could help make its own prison.” Yet it seems clear now that they were profoundly dissimilar—and not just because Spacey was a born character actor who systematically transformed himself into a leading man, while Hoffman was manifestly a star who was pigeonholed for too long as a character actor.

There are moments in Actors at Work, in fact, when they seem to be engaging in an unintentional dialogue. Here’s Spacey speaking of his two years at Juilliard:

What I learned more than anything else—and which I am enormously, enormously grateful for—is technique. What I learned was how do you get up every night for eight weeks, or twelve weeks or fourteen weeks or six months, into a run of a play and always be alive and always be there and always have your breath and always be energetic and always be ready to respond even on those nights when it doesn’t hit you, and somehow the performance, the audience—you just feel it’s not happening. It is technique that gets you through it. It is what you can do technically even if it’s not connected emotionally on that particular night.

To be honest, I find this fascinating, but it represents a very different approach from what Hoffman describes, in which he sometimes seems to be addressing Spacey himself:

You have tools at your disposal. You have a mind that you’ve soaked up with as much information as possible, and all those things help you get inside it. But the ultimate execution of it is something that is almost ninety-five percent will…I remember an acting teacher saying, “Eventually, you gotta decide to do the play every night.” It’s one of the best pieces of teaching I ever got. If you don’t decide to do it—and sixty percent of actors don’t decide to do it—they go do it anyway. The minute you decide to do it, it’s you doing the work to create the will to walk onstage.

This philosophical contest between technique and will can also be seen in their performances that have been preserved on film. Spacey always seemed to be pretending, however brilliantly, while Hoffman had a way of disappearing into even the tiniest parts—you could rarely catch him “acting,” while much of the pleasure of watching Spacey lay in our conspiratorial sense of his choices from one minute to the next. (There’s a scene in L.A. Confidential in which he does little else except make two phone calls, in a single take, and I can never watch it without marveling at how he handles the receiver of the telephone.) You can also see it in how they planned their careers. Spacey recalls: “I did cotton to the idea that if you were as specific in your choices of what you did as you were as an actor in a role, then you might find things that were right for you, that would challenge you and be interesting to do…I had made a very clear decision ten years earlier to start focusing on film and see if I could carve out a career. I had done it. American Beauty was out, and I thought, it just doesn’t get better than this.” Hoffman, by contrast, was far more intuitive:

The next role I want to play is the next role I want to play, I guess is the answer. I don’t know what that is until I actually see it. It has to be in the moment. Life has to flow. If you don’t let life flow, it’s hard to create. You can’t control creation. The minute I try to control what I’m going to act, what parts I’m going to play, they become something that I don’t want to act. It becomes a heady thing. It becomes, if I just play that part, then I’ll play that part, and then I’d better be over there. It becomes something that’s just structure and math, not creative.

Yet when you look at their filmographies, you can see the difference at once. Hoffman almost never took on a role that wasn’t fascinating, while the last fifteen years of Spacey’s career consisted largely of a series of dead ends. So much of an actor’s career is out of his hands that instinct often counts for more than cleverness.

But while it’s tempting to read Hoffman’s struggle with drug addiction as a reflection of the trauma that he repeatedly underwent as an actor, while Spacey held it at arm’s length, the truth seems to have been utterly different. As O’Donnell writes in Vogue: “I hesitate to ascribe Phil’s relapse after two decades to any one thing, or even to a series of things, because the stressors—or, in the parlance, triggers—that preceded it didn’t cause him to start using again, any more than being a child of divorce did. Lots of people go through difficult life events. Only addicts start taking drugs to blunt the pain of them.” And she deliberately rejects the notion that acting may have been to blame:

Phil went into rehearsal for Mike Nichols’s production of Death of a Salesman, and he threw himself into it with his usual intensity. Willy Loman is one of the great tragic roles of twentieth-century theater, and Phil gave one of the rawest and most honest performances of his career. It asked a lot of him and it exhausted him, but it had nothing to do with his relapse. If anything, doing seven shows a week kept him from using, because it would have been impossible to do that on drugs. Though he continued to drink after evening shows, he was otherwise clean, and as the days left in the show’s limited run wound down, I began to dread what would happen when it was over.

This couldn’t be less like Spacey, who was engaging in predatory behavior even while serving as the artistic director of the Old Vic, during the busiest period of his creative life. Acting saved Hoffman, until it didn’t, while Spacey appears to have used it as coldly as he did anything else. David Thomson wrote of Spacey years ago: “He can be our best actor, but only if we accept that acting is a bag of tricks that leaves scant room for being a real and considerate human being.” We don’t need to accept this. But we also need to recognize that even the will to walk onstage may not always be enough.

The inheritance of loss

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Philip Seymour Hoffman

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What celebrity death will make you cry?”

A few days ago, writing about the late pianist Glenn Gould, I expressed sadness that we won’t be able to listen to his third, hypothetical version of The Goldberg Variations, and wrote: “Although we’ll never hear it for yourselves, we can dream about it.” Of course, there’s no guarantee that Gould would have revisited his most famous work again, even if he were still alive, while the real tragedy of a death like that of Philip Seymour Hoffman is that we know exactly what we’ve lost. Hoffman was a productive actor at the top of his game, a year younger than Brando was when he made Last Tango in Paris, and there’s no question that we’ve been deprived of another thirty years of great performances. One of the sad wonders of cinema is how it forces us to confront how we all age, and Hoffman, who was utterly without vanity as a performer, might have left us a lasting essay on what it means for an actor of limitless resourcefulness to grow old on camera. As it is, we’ll never know, although we can glimpse it in the accelerated lifetime he lives in Synedoche, New York, a great movie that I’m not sure I can ever watch again.

When an artist we love and admire dies, we tend to experience one of two responses. In some cases, as with Hoffman or Heath Ledger, it’s a sense of loss at the realization of all we’re going to miss. At other times, when death arrives at the end of a long, productive career, it feels more like losing a friend or mentor we thought we’d have around forever. That’s why our strongest emotional responses tend to come with the death of someone whose work has quietly become part of the fabric of our lives, measured out in small regular increments, as in television or in a daily newspaper, rather than one who produced a handful of towering works. When I was growing up, I once found myself deeply sad in advance at the thought that Chuck Jones would die, more than fifteen years before he actually passed away, and the short list of public personalities whose deaths have affected me the most includes Charles Schulz and Roger Ebert. These may not have been the individuals who influenced my life the most—although my debts to Schulz and Ebert are incalculable—but over time, their faces and their work became part of who I was.

Francis Ford Coppola

Then there’s someone like Stanley Kubrick, who seems to unite all of the above. He was seventy when he died, and given the long stretches that elapsed between his later movies, it’s doubtful whether we would have gotten much more after Eyes Wide Shut, even if he had lived another decade. Yet it’s still shocking to see the prospect of additional masterpieces closed off by something as mundane as death. Directors can produce great work well into their seventies and beyond—just look at Altman and Kurosawa—so the loss of any major filmmaker feels premature. It’s sobering to realize that the number of new Scorsese or Spielberg films we’ll have a chance to see isn’t just finite, but can probably be counted on one hand, and that there will come a time when the ones we have are all we’re going to get. We’re lucky, at least, in the fact that the movies themselves will survive, which isn’t the case with other forms of art: I often wonder whether some of the thrill we get from live music or theater comes from the hint of mortality it carries, as we witness something that is happening right now and will never recur in quite the same way again.

But if individual movies can last forever, life itself can’t, and it’s in the passing away of an artist’s personality and possibility that we lose the most. So although there are many other worthy candidates—and I almost went with David Lynch—the person whose absence I suspect will hit me the hardest is one that takes even me by surprise: Francis Ford Coppola. It isn’t a matter of wanting him to direct another great film, since I haven’t even seen Youth Without Youth, Tetro, or Twixt, and there’s no question that his best years are behind him. Yet when Coppola is gone, it’s going to feel like the end of an era, with the departure of the one man who, more than anyone since Orson Welles, exemplifies the triumph and tragedy of a life in film. When he’s gone, I’ll remember him less for any one movie than for his commentary tracks, which are among the best I know, with the intimate, candid, generous fireside chats they afford with our Uncle Francis. It’s a voice filled with wisdom and regret, and it hints at the happiness that might still be found in wine, family, and good food after the fever of Hollywood has been left behind. And part of me hopes that he’ll live forever, like Tom Bombadil in Napa, ready to gently remind us of things we might prefer to forget.

Written by nevalalee

February 14, 2014 at 9:19 am

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