Movies postsSunday February 02, 2014
Philip Seymour Hoffman (1967-2014)
He surprised me (Freddie Miles stepping off his car with all the swagger of the rich and unaccountable in “Talented Mr. Ripley”), and saddened me (Scotty J.'s lament, “I'm a fucking idiot, I'm a fucking idiot, I'm a fucking idiot ...” in “Boogie Nights”), and now this one last sad surprise: Philip Seymour Hoffman dead of an apparent drug overdoes at 46 in his New York apartment.
I wrote about him for MSNBC in 2006 after he won the Oscar for best actor over Heath Ledger—his death seems to mimic Ledger's: alone, NY, drugs, too soon—and I haven't stopped thinking about him and his characters since. Earlier this week, in fact, I was mulling over his Lester Bangs, counseling William Miller on rock 'n' roll and life, lamenting their collective lack of cool. I always thought cool was overrated, and that Cameron Crowe bought into cool too much, and you just had to look at most of Hoffman's performances to see how overrated it really was.
His first Oscar nomination was for a lead—in “Capote”—which is surprising, since he was so good for so long in supporting roles: Dustin in “Twister,” Scottie J. in “Boogie Nights,” Brandt in “The Big Lebowski,” Mitch in “Patch Adams,” Phil in “Magnolia,” Freddie in “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” Lester in “Almost Famous.” But then the Academy has usually been late to parties.
From the MSNBC piece, “Philip Seymour Hoffman Is Us”:
Hoffman makes these small, exquisite choices all the time. The look of horror on Scotty J.’s face as a coked-up Dirk Diggler loses it and tells off the crew. The get-along chuckle of Brandt, the manservant in “The Big Lebowski,” and the respectful way he acquiesces to everyone’s wishes, even the Dude’s, even to the point of calling him “Dude” in a respectful, manservant tone of voice. The pause he gives tabloid reporter Freddy Lounds talking to the FBI in “Red Dragon”: “It’s a pleasure doing business with you ... chumps.” What’s sadder? That “chumps” is the bon mot he pauses for, or that he doesn’t realize it’s not much of a bon mot? We watch Hoffman act the way we read the best sentences of the best writers. It’s worthwhile on its own.
Hoffman's manager got in touch with us after the piece appeared, saying how much he liked it. I wrote my editor that I wished I could believe it, but, whoops, I accidentally sent it to Hoffman's manager instead. No, she insisted. It's true, she insisted. Another Scotty J. moment. I am such a fucking idiot.
That was always the key to Hoffman's performances: we identify. Remember “Patch Adams” from 1998? Great box office, horrible film. Title character wants doctors to care. Nasty dean of med school doesn’t. Hence: conflict. Patch even has the typical, snobby, blue-blood roommate we’re supposed to hate. Except there’s a late-night confrontation between the roomies and the film is upended:
Patch (Robin Williams): Why don’t you like me? You’re a prick and I like you.
Mitch (Hoffman): Because you make my effort a joke! I want to be a doctor. This isn’t a game to me! This isn’t playtime! This is serious business. I have it in me to be a great doctor, but in order to do that I have to sacrifice if I want to be better.
Patch: “Better.” Better than me, hmm?
Mitch: I will save lives that could have otherwise not been saved. Now, I could be like you and go around laughing and have a good time, ha ha, but I prefer to learn, because the more I learn, the more likely I will have the right answer at the crucial moment and save a life.
The filmmakers give Patch the final word, but if you’re a thinking person you realize Mitch is right. More, you identify with Mitch. Most of us try so hard in life but there’s always some idiot who hardly tries at all and still passes us up. Mitch could have been a clichéd, reviled character but Hoffman gave him humanity.
All of which recalls something Hoffman told movie critic David Edelstein in a 2006 New York Times profile. Illuminating his struggle to keep Truman Capote less attractive in “Capote,” Hoffman said, “The way toward empathy is actually to be as hard as possible on this character. The harder you are, the more empathy you'll gain, ultimately, by the end.” When Edelstein questioned him on this — less attractive equals more empathy? — Hoffman added, “I think deep down inside, people understand how flawed they are. I think the more benign you make somebody, the less truthful it is.”
Sad sad sad. I wanted decades more of this.
Am I the Only One Who Flashed on ‘The Ten Commandments’ During Martin Scorsese’s ‘Wolf of Wall Street’?
I keep thinking about this as the controversy surrounding “The Wolf of Wall Street” roils forward unabated: the connection between these two movies.
There are complaints that the movie is amoral, or even immoral, and that director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter don’t do enough to condemn their main character, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), who, for his crimes against humanity—bilking people of their fortunes and using the money to have a really, really good and depraved time with drugs and prostitutes—spent a few years in a fairly cushy federal prison, and today, or so the film suggests, travels the world giving seminars on “how to sell” to audiences willing to buy; willing, you could say, to be bilked again.
There’s a lot to say about this ending, and I did in my review, but for most people there’s not nearly enough comeuppance for Belfort. Scorsese says that’s part of the point. In an interview with Mike Fleming at Deadline Hollywood, he says of the audience for the film:
I didn’t want them to be able to think problem solved and forget about it. I wanted them to feel like they’d been slapped into recognizing that this behavior has been encouraged in this country, and that it affects business and the world and everything down to our children, and how they’re going to live, and their values in the future.
People feel slapped, sure, but many are blaming the slapper. They’re demanding comeuppance ... but from Scorsese and the movie, which is easy, and not from regulating the financial world, which is hard and potentially impossible.
Some go so far as to suggest the movie is immoral.
But that ignores “The Ten Commandments.”
Did no one else feel this way? In the orgy scenes in the “Wolf pit” at Stratton Oakmont? All of those bodies roiling together? Was I the only one whose mind flashed to Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 Biblical epic?
Specifically the ending scenes. Moses (Charlton Heston) has led his people from Egypt and toward the promised land, and he ascends Mt. Sinai to retrieve the word of God. In his absence, Dathan (Edward G. Robinson) convinces the people, so easily swayed, that Moses is gone for good, that they’ve been led astray, and that they’ve angered the true gods, who demand a golden calf in recompense. So that’s what the people do. They create a golden calf, a false idol, and worship at its feet. They indulge in wine, and brutality, and sex. Their bodies roil together.
That’s what flashed through my mind watching the orgy scenes in “Wolf of Wall Street”: the orgy scene in “The Ten Commandments.”
I don’t know if this is a coincidence. I don’t know if Scorsese—who grew up Roman Catholic, and for a time intended to be a priest, and who’s forgotten more about movies than you and I will ever know—intended for us to make this connection. I wouldn’t be surprised either way. All I know is I felt it.
And beyond the feeling is the analysis—the comparison of the two scenes. What are both about? A people so lost they worship a false idol: a golden calf.
Of course, in DeMille’s version, Moses returns, angered, and the idolaters are punished and killed. They're sent to hell. That’s what moviegoers want of Belfort. Instead, he’s sent to New Zealand. Instead, in real life, the golden calf simply got bigger and the worshipping became greater.
“You didn’t make things right,” moviegoers are complaining to Scorsese.
No, he’s saying, we didn’t make things right.
Indicting the Audience: Hollywood, the Dream Factory, Tries to Wake Us Up in 'Wolf of Wall Street,' 'Her' and ... 'Anchorman 2'?
Sweet dreams, America.
Hollywood has long been known as the dream factory. It shows us who we want to be rather than who we are. It lies to us at 24 frames a second.
Is Hollywood now tired of its lies? Of our need for those lies?
Three late-season movies that have almost nothing in common have this in common: They indict the audience, us, for our lack of seriousness; for our overwhelming wish for the sugar-coated world; for buying into the lies.
In Spike Jonze’s “Her,” Thedore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with his operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), which is obviously a form of fantasy, but that’s not what I’m thinking of. I’m thinking of an early moment on the subway home when he’s offered the news of the day via earbud. Conflict in the Middle East? Skip. Budget battles in D.C.? Skip. Photos of sexy, pregnant soap opera star? Pause. Open.
That’s us. Sadly. Or inevitably. In Jonze’s hands, gently.
“Her” is set in the near future while “Anchorman 2” is set in the near past: 1980 and the birth of 24-hour cable news. It’s also the birth of the Hollywoodization of the news. The whole movie (and, it’s implied, our entire culture) turns on one thought, first voiced by Will Ferrell’s bumbling everyman Ron Burgundy: What if we didn’t give people the news they needed to hear but instead gave them the news they wanted to hear? So that’s what happens. Instead of interviews with Yasser Arafat, it’s shots of fluffy animals and footage of high-speed car chases and an overwhelming patriotic flavor. “Don’t just have a great night,” Ron tells his audience as he signs off, “have an American night.” It’s a short step from there to Sean Hannity.
Eventually Ron learns the error of his ways but of course we never did. We keep buying into the lies Ron started. Even in the near future, we’re still Theodore, tired and lonely, ignoring Syria and D.C. to look surreptitiously at the sexy soap opera star.
Finally, and most pugently, there’s “The Wolf of Wall Street.”
Yes, that final shot, and please accept all spoiler alerts. The movie ends with a shot of an audience watching an unscrupulous man selling them on selling. They hope that they too will learn how to sell and get away from what they have and who they are. Here’s Richard Brody of The New Yorker on the audience in that scene:
It’s a moment with a terrifying, Olympian blend of compassion, disdain, and anguish; it shows a fatal lack of imagination combined with a desperate range of unfulfilled desires. The shot shows not just an audience, but the audience: Scorsese puts the film’s viewers face to face with themselves, charges us with compensating for our lack of imagination and fatal ambition through contact with the wiles of a master manipulator. Just as the fictionalized Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) is presented at the seminar by a host (who, in a diabolical cameo, is played by the real-life Belfort), so we, the movie audience, have been introduced to Belfort by another enthusiastic impresario, namely Martin Scorsese, who knows perfectly well that he is giving us something that we want, something that we need, and something that taps into dreams and ambitions that are both central to life and completely suspect.
There’s a more direct and dismissive example earlier in the movie. Belfort is telling us, the movie audience, about IPOs. He’s looking right at us. Leo is. With those pretty eyes. And he says this:
See, an IPO is an initial public offering, the first time a stock is offered for sale to the general population. As the firm taking the company public, we set the initial price then sold those shares back to —
Then he catches himself, smiles, and adds:
You know what? You’re probably not following what I’m saying. The question is, “Was it legal?” Absolutely not.
Why does he stop? Because he realizes who he’s talking to. You and me. And Theodore Twombly and Ron Burgundy. Do we want to hear about IPOs? Of course not. Skip. We want fluffy animals and sexy soap opera stars and flags unfurling. And when the world collapses because of what men like Jordan Belfort do with IPOs and CDOs, we’ll look for others to blame rather than ourselves.
So what’s happening in these movies? Is this a trend? Is the dream factory trying to wake us all up?
Or is Hollywood simply marking its territory? Each instance, after all, isn’t about the movies; it’s about the news, and the dangers that occur when news divisions horn in on Hollywood’s territory by presenting wish-fulfillment fantasy rather than the Walter Cronkite stuff.
Whatever it is, I hope the trend continues. Wakey wakey.
Sasha Stone of Awards Daily posted this the other day on Facebook (her daughter was watching it for the first time) and it made me smile for two reasons.
The first reason is that it's a press kit photo from the period. My father, movie critic for The Minneapolis Star-Tribune in the 1970s and '80s, got these all the time. Occasionally he'd bring them home and my brother and I would sit on the bed and divvy them up. Should I go for that Jacqueline Bisset glossy from “The Deep” or Luke Skywalker after witnessing Ben Kenobi's death in “Star Wars”? The dilemmas.
The second reason is it's “Breaking Away.”
The Saddest Song Ever?
Since “Saving Mr. Banks,” which I obviously didn’t like much, I’ve been thinking a bit about “Mary Poppins,” the 1964 movie that the 2013 movie is all about.
I was born in 1963, a year before its release, but it was still big by the time my memory kicked in during the late 1960s (about the time some people’s memories began to kick out). I remember I was going to the birthday party of a good friend, John Mockenhaupt, and my mother bought the “Mary Poppins” soundtrack album for me to give to him. What did I do? I opened it and listened to it on my own record player. Couldn’t you do that? Couldn't you just put the LP back into the cover and give it to him? Apparently not. Mom wasn’t happy. Neither was I when I had to show up, sheepishly, with a crap secondary gift.
Odd that I needed to listen to it because I wasn’t a huge fan of the movie. I liked Bert and his cohorts enough, true free spirits, but the kids didn't seem like kids but waxworks of kids; they freaked me out a little. The parents? Sure, the absentee father. But the Mrs. was too interested in suffragette politics to care for her kids? I didn’t get that at all. Even Mary Poppins, pretty pretty Julie Andrews, with her prettier voice, was a little scary for me. You sensed her sympathy was only skin deep; that there was steel beneath it. I was a bit spoiled, and used to unconditional love, so all of this felt somewhat unpleasant.
But I did like the songs: “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” “I Love to Laugh.” So much so that John Mockenhaupt’s loss was my gain.
“Feed the Birds,” though, made me uncomfortable. And I think it made me uncomfortable because it’s so fucking sad. It’s a beautiful song, probably the most beautiful song the Sherman brothers wrote for “Mary Poppins,” and sung gorgeously by Julie Andrews, but ... I mean, it sounds sad, and it's about a homeless woman (Jane Darwell, 25 years after “Grapes of Wrath”), begging people to buy little bags of bread so birds don't die. And that's a lullaby? I've written before that this is the saddest song ever, or maybe Judy Garland singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” in “Meet Me in St. Louis”; but at least “St. Louis” recognizes the song's sadness. Little Margaret O’Brien starts crying a minute 30 in. “Feed the Birds” in “Poppins”? The kids listen with creepy smiles then drift off to sleep. I would’ve had nightmares. I probably did.
Even now, at 50, it breaks my heart.
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